When Game Academics Attack (The subject)
Brunel University: Home to the 4th DiGRA Conference
I’ve been to E3, where publicity bots battle to death the lasers and smoke machines. I’ve been to GDC, where the giants of the industry wave beer bottles and slosh suds onto your shirt in crowded parties. I’ve been to the Tokyo Game Show where costumed warriors bleed a love for games hard to imagine in the West.
But tucked into a little pub in the western suburbs of London talking to a bunch of academic game researchers remains one of the best moments in my life as a game writer.
After spending the last four days listening to game researchers from all over the Europe and North America talk about what makes videogames tick and what motivates gamers to game and why all this electronic entertainment stuff matters at all, you realize that the medium has come a long way since hardcore fans finished deconstructing every stray pixel in Super Mario Bros., or started writing Metroid fan fiction. Even more, games have a lot of room to grow.
In between arguments about ontology and wisecracks about Heidegger, my conferenced days filled with light bulb moments while taking in the Digital Games Research Association Conference. Some of the less inscrutable moments include these tidbits.
- Jesper Juul lead a panel discussing the idea of bad games. Much as cinefiles have turned the worship of bad movies into a wry form of film appreciation, Juul set up a talk about the fun in playing really rotten, broken games. Ever tried China Miner? It appears to have a difficulty curve like a flat brick wall in your face. The game is so hard that it is almost impossible to play. Big Rig Racing feautres the lowest Metacritic score of all time and apparently has no AI, no collision detection, no opponents, and no QA (But backing up allows you to accelerate to infinity). Trying to have fun with what appears to be one of the worst games ever released becomes a peculiar challenge. Apparently, a few years ago TIGSource.com even held a B-Game Festival. Sometimes bad can be good.
- Besides providing an interesting commentary on how survival horror has, by turning into an action-shooter style of play, started to disappear as a genre, a set of presentations on horror games pointed out that Resident Evil 4 has an odd commentary on work embedded in the game. Leon keeps his inventory in a briefcase and battles is his way up through a hierarchy of bosses. Nice work, if you can get it.
- Mikael Jakobsson noted that Xbox 360 games with more achievements sell better. So, adding achievements to a game does seem to help convince players to hang onto their games longer rather than turning them over to the used game store. Or maybe, popular games just have more achievements.
- Where else than a game conference can you get quote like this: “We have a whole generation of young men who want to dance, who want to dance with their hands,” said Graeme Kirkpatrick referring the posture of gamers sitting on a couch with a controller in their hands.
- Or, sociologist Bart Simon explaining why people want to pretend to be Jedi’s, even when the Wii control isn’t a very accurate light saber input device. He figures the fact people cannot completely immerse into the fantasy because the Wii doesn’t allow a fine enough level of control is just fine. We want play, not virtual reality. “Without the screen,” he pointed out “the fantasy ends.” In other words, one reason games are fun is because they are not real. Real, it turns out, just isn’t that much fun.
Discussions about games and ethics, games and aesthetics, women in games, teaching about games, writing about games and more has kept the last four days mind-spinningly interesting. Sure, these topics are not the usual fodder of game boasting gossip about the next big thing. But that’s sort of the point, isn’t it? Academics exist to work through all the possibly interesting and meaningful stuff to try and make sense of the new, the unknown and the unexplained. And every once in a while they come out into the light of day to share what they’ve come up with.
Take a look for yourself when the conference papers eventually show up online: www.digra.org.