Saturday, August 1, 2015

We are gathered here today because of a Thing

Human beings have this habit. In the world, we see Things. Here "Thing" is an incomprehensibly wide category, including events, processes, ideas, forms, sensation and all ways you could cut experience into defined bits. One could say, in short, that the history of humanity is a bunch of incredibly different people uniting over a Thing. The internet has been a great boon to this behaviour, and now it is possible to relate to people halfway across the world because like you, they Like A Thing. This is great! You get to share things that are important to you with someone else who has similar and yet entirely different experiences. If you can't draw, someone who can may have made a moving tribute to the Thing You Like. It's a great time for everyone. But people go very far in this. They create an identity around Thing-Liking.

One of the worst examples of this is ~video game culture~. A lot of people like video games as a Thing, and so want to incorporate this fact into their identity. But doing that requires a definition of everything that makes video games so great. A definition that you are going to construct entirely out of your own perceptions and experiences (which are of course influenced by others). When it's done, the goal is to holler about this definition as loud as humanly possible until you attract others. In this way you find video games heaven.

The urge to find others who also like video games is understandable, born in a time where you might - for most of your life - be the only person who plays video games. But we are not here now. Video games are everywhere. The people who now create instances of human culture grew up playing video games. They have very specific, personal memories that make Metroid more than "a game where you shoot aliens and traverse an alien world to collect powers", and the ability to express them in new work. We now exist in a world where gamers have made their monkey paw wish, making games truly art - art that can be examined, made, criticized and enjoyed by human beings who are completely unlike them.

The single coherent video game history we imagine, with champions and universally adored classics,  does not exist in reality. If you actually sat down and talked to a diverse, international group of video game players, you would hear a very different history. Here's one:

I was born in 1988, which is about the best time to experience both very old and distant electronics and more mature video games technology within the same childhood. The first games I played were on IBM PCs - Prince of Persia, Alley Cat. My first 'console' was a 100-in-1 NES games device that looked like a SNES (I had borrowed it from someone). It was one of the good ones, it didn't repeat games that many times and all of the big favourites were there. Contra, the tank thing. You know.

I did get a GameBoy fairly early though. With it (and Tetris, obviously) I got Duck Tales, and this remains the only version of that game I have played. GameBoys would become the Holiday Console, a thing I would play on a farm camping ground in Fryslan for years and years. The SNES would arrive in a Donkey Kong Country bundle, a large box with the green tree textures from the game box and manual.

When people talk about their video game childhood, the personal conversations often quickly devolve into a litany of agreed video game history. "oh yeah, that game was the best", three people might say. Five others have never played it, though by now they've of course heard of the game. They nod and the conversation moves on to a game all but one of them have played. The one person feels a bit left out.

Unless you were in a fairly fortunate position, you never owned that many video games. You may have rented a bunch, but its unlikely that you were able to collect every single Historically Significant Video Game in advance. Here, for example, is a picture containing every single SNES cartridge I have ever personally owned.

You can't see them all, but you'll find a whole bunch of 'classics' missing. The first Metroid game I played was Metroid Prime. Super Mario AllStars was the first time I experienced the original three Super Mario Bros games. I didn't buy Starfox until I was 16 or something. The only side-scrolling beat-em-up I have ever owned is Captain Commando. The NES cartridges (there are more in the box) are not from my childhood, because I never had a NES then. I did however, have an N64 (the games are in that Mario case). I also own two sets of Donkey Konga bongos.

Why is this? Did I not read enough video game magazines to know which games are worth buying? Even without the Internet, I could be aware of what games might be good, right?

People often forget that video games are expensive. I remember getting Perfect Dark, and it being A HUNDRED GUILDERS. My parents are far more generous than the norm, but still these are all the games I owned. I often swapped games with friends or rented some, but most of my time was spent replaying the games I had. So was yours. Your parents, even if an envelope from the future arrived each month detailing which games were the very best, would never have bought you All Of The Games. You could never have become the shit king of video game mountain, because your life could never have been (as much as you would have wanted it to be) entirely about video games.

You have an encyclopaedic knowledge of your favourite games not because of your Superior Gamer Skill, but because you could play them over and over again for hours and hours, days and days, weeks and weeks. I have played at least one SNES game more than I have played World of Warcraft AND Warcraft 3.

The first time we could look back on childhood was during our teens. The teens are an interesting time, because this is when most people first become aware of the identity crafting game. As we flooded onto message boards, we began to take pride in our 'gaming experiences'. Many often pretended they knew more than they did or were better than they were. I once read the entire script of Final Fantasy VII on GameFAQS so that I could talk about the game and appear as if I had played it (I couldn't have, because the first Sony console I got was a PS3). Video Game Scholars had high status, and we venerated people who had collected the rarest items (which were often commercial failures that are only rare because of that).

We wrote huge posts glorifying every game we held dear. We made jokes that became less jokey the more we repeated them. We lambasted mothers, fathers, parents, sisters, brothers, siblings, friends; for not 'getting' video games. They said video games were pointless, or bad. They were obviously an inferior sort of person.

I'm talking about the 90s and early 00s here, but you could easily think I am talking about 'video game culture' NOW. But this 'ironic' white supremacist tinge to video games rhetoric is not at all an aberration, or the result of a small taint spreading throughout communities unchecked (though this of course helps). The video game fascist grew directly out of our teenage attempts to create the video games culture, to demarcate the culture of the Video Games Peoples. I would never want to do this, and the outcome of this project should make perfectly clear why.

Every child born from the 70s until the early 90s has had a pure innocent wish for "a video gaming community". A place where they could safely enjoy a thing they love, and meet other people who love the thing to. A place where no one would be mean to them because of the things they like

Nothing in this wish implies the creation of an exclusionary right-wing culture based on the glorification of consumption and identification with branding. Yet that is what happened. Why?

If you attempt to form a community based around a common interest, you are very likely to make certain assumptions. This is not any different from the fact that you make assumptions when you go outside and walk across a zebra crossing. But the assumptions often make us blind to dynamics that are going on around us, and so also in the community we are creating. There are two assumptions in particular that get in the way:

There is the assumption about people inside the community. The assumption is that they are like you. They must have had similar experiences to you, and they would never hurt you. These are the safe people. Clearly, if someone in the community is unsafe, there must be some sort of mistake and they should be removed from it.

The other assumption is that people outside the community are NOT like you, or even dangerous and unsafe. They don't understand the things your community values, or have not had the experiences that you see as fundamental. They probably even hate video games. But you are a very complicated person, and even the smallest possible group of 'non-gamers' could be shown to be very much like you, even much more so than all of your in-group friends. But you distrust this artificially created outgroup, and suspect any criticism you receive of being based in ignorance of your community.

With these assumptions, the community project is doomed to fail. Our experiences ARE NOT similar, but we are aided in appearing to conform to a single standard by the complex interoperating set of things that society has agreed you are. A cishet white man may look at the video game community and see nothing BUT people like them. For this person, the wish is fulfilled. It appears this way because the specific set [cis,het,white,man] is very good at allowing you to function unimpeded in a space. The space seems designed SPECIFICALLY FOR YOU, even if this was not CONSCIOUSLY done by the space's creators.

Others are not so lucky. They do not see people like them in the community. Because of this, all of their problems are alien to it. If a community has no context whatsoever for issues people might have with it, it quickly becomes insular. The community does not see the complaining member as a part of it. It will quickly move to isolate them.

Over the years there have been a lot of attempts to create a video game culture that does not do this, but they then gleefully continue to reproduce the initial conditions that lead to this situation. For instance, a great many people still associate "challenge" in a video game with "difficulty" and "unfairness". This association only ever emerged because video games first appeared in the arcade setting, where it was necessary to extract as many coins as possible from customers (you have heard about the Space Invaders 100 yen coin shortage). Even when games appeared in the home, some of them were almost unenjoyably hard. Many classics - if they had not had the benefit of existing for 20 to 30 year with an adoring fanbase who mastered it through weeks and weeks of afterschool playing - would have been destroyed in the press.

Because of all the time we could invest in these games, we WERE good at them. I often see Youtube personalities who have a far deeper and wider skill in playing than I do fumble during parts of old games I breezed through. This is because they are 15 years younger than me, and did not play them in the same context as I did.

Certainly mastering a game can be extremely fun. Some people do this continuously, eventually appearing at *GDQ to great applause. But we have made a mistake in portraying this kind of person as the peak player, who is one with video games and who's skill is an expression of the fundamental nature of video games.

Video games are not about designing great obstacles to overcome, having a deep combat system or telling a story, or having a wonderful world to explore. Video games are supposed to be fun, and they are supposed to make you feel happy.

I played a lot of video games before I got my SNES, but I did not truly love video games until I got to play a certain game. This is the game I mentioned as having played more than an MMO that was actually designed to prevent you from quitting.

(you should click play while you read the rest of this imo)

Yoshi's Island is the greatest video game of all time, and a playable manifesto of the correct video game design philosophy.

Now of course, these words are opinions. Yoshi's Island can be many things. It can be the game you weren't good at at all, or the game your sister played - which you hated because the noises kept you awake.  It could even be a complete unknown to you. But this is how I feel about Yoshi's Island, and I want to tell you why.

In 3-2 of Yoshi's Island, there is a very easy to find secret. When you go inside, Poochie is there. There is also a message box. What it said made me very emotional, as a small child [1]

"We, the Mario team poured our hearts and souls into creating this game for your entertainment. It is full of secrets. Enjoy."

I knew PEOPLE made video games. When the credits scrolled, there were many names, and at the end it would sometimes say "THANK YOU FOR PLAYING!". But I had never considered that people made games FOR ME TO ENJOY. That they would work very hard to make sure that I would have fun playing their game. That a bunch of complete strangers cared in some small way whether I was happy or not.

To this day, whether I feel this way when playing a game or not is how I decide if it is truly 'good'. Games can still be very fun when I do not have this feeling, but they will often have been designed on the basis of how challenging they are, or how well they portray some classic genre.

Yoshi's Island did not feel like this. It had challenge, and it got harder as it went on, but the way it achieved this was by creating a bewildering variety of levels and enemies (some appearing exactly once) that you could still overcome with the basic set of skills the game ingrained in you by the end of the first world.

Yoshi's Island did not attempt to 'feel like' a Mario game. It did not attempt to approach the new realistic style pioneered by Donkey Kong Country, instead using the processing power to appear as a living crayon drawing. Freed from these lesser goals, Yoshi's Island could be born.

Yoshi's Island was exactly not what people were asking Nintendo to make at the time. They just made what they thought would make everyone happy. At the last E3, a Nintendo employee finally said what I wanted someone in that industry to say: "Most of all I want people to feel happy when playing this game". You'll notice she works on the new Yoshi game, and is the person who made the yarn Yoshi that inspired the game's look.

This is the kind of person I want the video game industry to contain. When we sit down to think about game design; we often think "how can I make the best x", because x is something that makes you very happy. But why allow x to obscure your primary goal? Would the game not be better if your primary goal was to make a game that makes people happy? When "fun" is paired with "happiness" instead of "challenge" or "replayability", much more room is left for innovation. Look at Splatoon: this is technically a shooter, but it was very clearly designed according to this philosophy. Shooting other players is not valued. It can be a tactic that allows you more time to control the map, but the game never associates a name with your target or killer (just the weapon) and there is no mode where shooting at other players is the primary gameplay.

It is obvious why they did this: some people are extremely good at the traditional FPS gameplay, and some are not. The former, if they become the established playerbase, can make the game MUCH LESS FUN for everyone else. By de-emphasizing key parts of what makes a multiplayer shooter, they kept the game fun and allowed it to make more players happy.

Anyone can do this! There is no hidden power in the Nintendo Building that lets them create the best video games. They have a tradition of game design that includes a very simple and easily adopted idea: that games should be fun, and make people happy.

Maybe we should have a similar view of how to make communities. Instead of creating an identity to adopt and a stronghold to be invited into, the focus of the community should be specifically to let incredibly different people come together because of a Thing. If this is taken as a maxim, and if it is accepted that people might be more different from you than you can even conceive, we might actually succeed in building safe and fun spaces around our hobbies, our shared experiences, and our beliefs. If we see hobbies as contexts for understanding each other, we would not create these nightmarish Gamer Holds, where you MUST have This Loud Of An Opinion About Video Games to be treasured as a comrade. We would not exclude but remediate, knowing that the short term fix of removing someone from the community is not actually a substitute for solving the problem.

Maybe, the goal of community should be to make people happy.

[1]I would have been 7 when Yoshi's Island came out. My mother began to teach me English when I was 5. Since video games often used short words because of limitations (you could do much less with the latin alphabet in the space allowed than with Japanese characters), this meant that I could usually understand the gist of what they were trying to tell me.

No comments :

Post a Comment