Sunday, February 18, 2007

Slamdance Post-Mortem Forum Reaction

A couple of days ago I attended an open forum discussing Slamdance’s removal of Super Columbine Massacre RPG (SCMRPG from now on) from its finalists this year. There were some very interesting topics that game up, but there were a couple of things that I think could be considered in a little more depth. I’d like to preface the following by saying that I don’t think SCMRPG should have been pulled from Slamdance after being awarded finalist status – much of the discussion regarding one Peter Baxter (and his decision) gave the impression that he had simply pulled the game due to personal aversion to the game’s content.

The first thing is that creation is art in the most pure sense. SCMRPG had a point – the creator of the game had a reason for making it. This doesn’t make the game good, respectable, or worthy of praise; it just makes it a game. Why should this game be treated differently from other games? There are a couple of questions that stem from this: Is SCMRPG in good taste? Is it a worthy representation of the event – worthy enough to avoid criticism due to its content? Perhaps the questions are part of a bigger uncertainty, which deals with whether games are a medium that can currently portray violence in an artistic sense without receiving criticism.

This was a very important point that Julian Bleecker brought up in the background chat that I don’t think was very well addressed: That games as a medium, right now, might not be capable of handling sensitive subjects that are violent in nature because of the popular opinion held by the public that games trivialize violence. This is not to say that we can’t do it, it just says that people are, as a whole, unwilling to accept them. What I don’t think was addressed was a plan of action to try and bring games up to the level of other mediums of expression. Right now we don’t have it, and while it is certainly possible, I think it’s important to keep this in mind as we all tiptoe around the idea of designing and selling a game that addresses very real and serious issues with culture, society, and war.

Maybe a war game that doesn’t include killing? A first person game about loss and emotional trials instead of leveling up. But how would that work?

Jenova mentioned something that ran very much along these lines – he expressed that the player might not be ready to play a game that was sad. He said that in his opinion, the gamer community wasn’t necessarily in a position in terms of development that would allow them to enjoy playing a drama. I think this illustrates perfectly the need for a slow shift from current constructs to more emotional constructs. He mentioned that he was attempting to do that by integrating positive emotions like love and gain into his game mechanics. He doesn’t think negative emotions are viable right now in the community. I think he made a very good point.

SCMRPG is arguably the most important game of the last couple of years. Not because of its gameplay or because of how awesome it is – I played it last night after the forum and it’s nothing to write home about. But the content is polarizing, and because this is getting so much attention, it means that games are getting attention; and the question of whether or not games are appropriate for this type of expression is being asked. Some people are saying “yes” and others are saying “no,” but far more people are saying yes than no, and in many cases, the no is conditional with a “not yet” clause. We are moving forward by leaps and bounds.

I do think that it will be a slow progression from here to there. I do think that we can do it, and I do think that it’s in the cards for the next couple of years. Unfortunately, I don’t think that we’re in a position right now to make games like this and receive positive press for it – the problem of people looking at the history of games and saying “What’s the difference between this and Quake? This is an insult to those who died” is real and unavoidable.

There was a correlation made between the film industry and the game industry – specifically Charlie Chaplan. He was a star, and he started off with comedy. After a time he started addressing more controversial issues. Others followed, and over the course of ten years we had a strong movement to Film addressing serious social and political issues. I can see no current impediments to interactive whose counterparts were not overcome by film in the past.

I think a good question to be asking is not “can we do this” but “how do we do this?” What is the progression? Can we just start right now and make a game about racism or terrorism? What elements of the interactive form to we still need to master in order to create an atmosphere that is touching instead of offensive?

And I don’t necessarily think that we need a “Will Wright” to create that one game that shifts popular opinion. In fact, I don’t think that it will be only one game. It will start with one, then two, then ten. Slowly, these themes will proliferate the market and people will become acclimated to the idea of games portraying important events and conveying important themes. Even touchy ones. We have the ability, it will just take time.