At Game Developers Conference this year, I was very lucky to be able to participate in a Games for Change ‘microtalks’ session, on the topic of “How Designing for Love Can Change The World”. The session was moderated by Jane McGonigal, and compared by Jane Pinckard, and featured talks by Chelsea Howe, Martin Hollis, Scott Brodie, Michael Molinari, and myself. The session was, very kindly, covered on a number of outlets, and also, is now available on the GDC Vault, I believe.
My biggest takeaway from this experience, though, was that trying to talk about complex things, including complexity in five minutes is really difficult. Because, essentially, this is what this talk was about: the complexity of love, and of human experience.
My original draft was at least twice as long, as George Kokoris in front of whom I practiced (he can attest that I was trying to talk twice as fast) can assure you. So, in the interests of time, my talk became way more polarised than I’d have liked – and, of course, there was plenty of l’esprit d’escalier in there too; I think I realised that subtlety really doesn’t really well, work when addressing a crowd.
I’ve written up the session here for posterity, with added notes where appropriate.
Please note: the format was such that it was 20 seconds per slide – so, there are many slides, and therefore many pictures.
This tak is about romantic love, and the scientific method. These things may seem contradictory, but bear with me. Though first, let’s talk about space. Most of you will already know, that expanding out from the earth is a sort of ‘bubble’ of radio waves; all the broadcasts that have ever been sent, by anyone on the planet.
We’re sending out children’s TV shows & speeches by dictators, all our achievements, all our follies, all the Kardashians. Our media forms a sort of weird mix tape of the human experience, for anyone who might care to listen. It’s been asked a number of times: what would any extra-terrestrial observers make of it all? What would they make of us?
Edit: Of course, we have not been meaning to send out these messages, so this might be a weird analogy. Perhaps a better analogy would be that of the Voyager probes, 1 & 2 sent out in 1977, containing the famous Golden Record – intended as a ‘cultural Noah’s Ark’.
Obviously, we haven’t been broadcasting games (or sending them out on Voyager…), but it’s interesting to ask ourselves: if alien beings, far in the future, were to assess what life on Earth was like, from only our archive of videogames, what would that teach them? What legacy are games leaving for us? It’s likely a very narrow sort of picture of what it is actually like to be human.
Edit: Regarding games leaving a narrow picture – mostly about shooting things: this stuff is fine, obviously, but, as I said, narrow. There is nothing inherently wrong with games about conflict over borders, or ideology; conflict is often one of the greatest sources of human complexity. However, the problem is that games don’t really reflect this complexity very well, which should be something that games are basically ace at doing.
Moreover, what would our games or broadcasts say about the human experience of love? There’s any number of love stories out there already, but, rather than telling one particular story as such: how do we model the very experience of love itself? What it’s like to love? Because we could look at any one relationship, any one couple…
Edit: The meandering point I was actually trying to get at, here: F*ck a heteronormative approach.
Love is the most interesting bit, and ours is a planet full of people in love. At the Digital Romance Lab, we took the approach that this notion suggests: if we want to teach someone who is not human about our experience of love, and we had only the medium of games to express ourselves, how would we do it?
[Note: not like this.]
We adopted a philosophy of experimentation and iteration (a bit like dating, one might say). If we have an idea, we simply build it, in hopes of discovering whether it is a design path worth pursuing, even if it is a failure, and we’ve had a few of those. But, we also ask the question of which part of love’s complexity we want to portray.
After all, love is paradoxically both universal and personal, experienced in many different ways. It’s this complexity that makes love so compelling when it comes to games. There’s a lot to cover, a lot to model. It presents a fascinating opportunity for developers to explore this experience, which both unites us and gives rise to so much diversity.
Love stories are also interesting when they go a bit wrong. Perhaps it is failures in love that make the successes all the better, prepare you for them, make them ever more victorious. Just like games. The discordant feedback of unrequited romance easily parallels the feedback loop of a game. We explore, we struggle, we learn, we move forward.
[Edit: the next few slides were a very fast, sweeping overview of some of the game-jam projects that came out of Dirolab, to illustrate the purpose and ideology behind the project, so omitted here.]
Some of this thinking has fed into a game I’m working on independently, called Redshirt. It’s a life sim set on a space station, blending classic sci-fi tropes with the impact that social networking has on our emotions. Amongst other things, it’s about capturing things like the uncertainty of sending a flirty message, seeing they are online, awaiting a response. It’s about allowing social experimentation, and trying to navigate social physics.
Games in which we may love but also fail at love, are about allowing players to think systematically about their actions & their consequences when it comes to romantic decisions. Games can be models for understanding real things, important things, and particularly useful for trying to interrogate things as weird and as complex as love. Games are the ideal engines of interrogation.
After all, video games may increase our capacity for complex systems thinking. They teach us that things – including love – may be complicated and beautiful and universal all at once. They allow us to poke and prod at its weirdness, via the scientific method; harnessing our natural awe, wonder, and curiosity about the world, interrogating it through logic and iteration.
Perhaps our best traits as humans, really, are also our most basic of traits. Yet, they are also the ones we forget about so often: how to love, and how to explore.