My GDC 2014 Microtalk

I’ve uploaded a version of the microtalk I delivered at Game Developer’s Conference 2014, during the session GDC Microtalks 2014: One Hour, Ten Speakers, a Panoply of Game Thinking! I’ve embedded the video below.

The full text is also below, for those of you interested. Thanks again to the ever-brilliant Richard Lemarchand for inviting me to speak!

Edit: Ah, happily, only a few hours after I blogged this, the official recording of the GDC microtalks went up live on the GDC Vault, for free, so you could also watch it here. The bonus being, you can see the other nine (far more worthy) talks too!

This video you’re watching is called Elevated, and it was made in 2009 as a collaboration between two demogroups named RGBA and TBC. Without a background in the demoscene or in computer graphics, this footage may not mean anything to you. It just looks like a camera flying over some terrain. In fact, the first time I saw it, it was because my husband had it running on his computer, and I looked over, and was like “Why is this so special?” But, what makes it special is that it’s actually a 4-kilobyte demo. This whole thing, 4kb! The artistry becomes apparent once you realize that a program one-third the size of my Twitter avatar generated this entire video. The imagery alone doesn’t teach us that; there’s a certain level of pre-existing knowledge – dare I say technical knowledge – necessary to appreciate how incredibly cool an accomplishment this is.

 I think a similar kind of thing exists for game systems. There’s a particular kind of delight we get from emergent experiences; the kind of delight that occurs when we know that something that we’ve witnessed in a game happened for us, and only for us.

 But, this requires us to appreciate the nature of the systems in a game;  if we happen to be under the illusion that we’re playing a linear, authored experience, we’ll respond very differently from when we’re aware of the beautiful serendipity that arises all the time in simulation. Without some existing degree of systems literacy, the charms of emergence may elude us.

 It’s popular to talk about how videogames have the potential to make people more systems literate. We like to think that understanding systems in the games we play makes us better at understanding the systems we encounter in the real world. Sadly, things don’t usually work out that way. Understanding the deep, multilayered systems of a game like League of Legends does not seem to make players better-equipped to understand the deep, multilayered systems of, say, social privilege in all its many forms and with all its intersecting axes. 

In fact, more often we find the situation is completely reversed. Many games demand we already have some basic systems literacy in order to appreciate them.

 I was speaking with Jim Rossignol, designer of Sir, You Are Being Hunted, which is an excellent systems-driven game. And he told me about a player who said he didn’t like “the battle scene” in the game. Of course, Sir doesn’t have a battle scene. It doesn’t have any “scenes” at all in the way we understand them. This player had just seen a huge fight happen by accident and believed it was all by design.

 I experienced this kind of feedback too, on my recent game, Redshirt; a game all about simulating behaviour on a social network. I read one account of a player describing their playthrough in which their girlfriend dumped him for their lecherous manager, and after they were promoted the player entered another relationship,  though their original girlfriend, newly and conspicuously single, started insisting they get back together, and they relented, leaving them in an unhappy relationship, and full of regret. Of course, none of this kind of thing is scripted at all, though it was interpreted as such,  and the player expressed their dismay at a lack of a satisfying resolution to this supposed storyline.

 So it goes to show, games that do not have a preauthored, linear narrative have an expectation problem, for which better systems literacy is the answer.  Without that, how are we to know what to expect? We may find ourselves critiquing the narrative arc of a Dwarf Fortress playthrough, or Minecraft’s level design.

 Games with linear, authored storylines have for the most part taught players what to expect, so there’s a challenge here for developers to communicate what “systems-driven” game design really is. There’s an interesting set of tensions here though; We want players to better understand game systems so they can appreciate the possibilities inherent in them, but as those systems become more complex, this becomes yet another axis upon which videogames can be ‘exclusive’ and inaccessible.

 After all, videogames and the culture surrounding them are already fraught with barriers ranging from social to economic, obstructed by the complexity of controllers and other conventions. Systems-driven games are already perceived as ‘hardcore’ in some way, as much as I hate that dichotomy, so there are many ingrained assumptions to overcome. Perhaps when we communicate about games, particularly with people who don’t tend to engage with them, we need to better highlight their systemic nature alongside all the other things that can make games interesting. It’s a problem of education, though it’s a difficult one.

 But, there is hope. If you explain DayZ to someone unfamiliar with games, they will tend to be more interested than if you explain Call Of Duty to them. Games with emergent experiences provide us with these tiny moments of awe  as we realize that a particular thing happened just for us, and no one else will experience it in quite the same way. As developers, we need to make more kinds of weird and wonderful and diverse systems-driven games, telling all kinds of quirky emergent stories, for and about all kinds of people. And as both developers and players, we need to get better at talking about these special anecdotes, these tiny moments of awe, while at the same time realizing and describing the magical complexity that makes them happen.