Man, Schindler’s List was Fun!

1:28 am Game Development, Gaming

Written shortly after Call of Duty: World at War was released (2009ish), but decided to clean it up and (finally) post it.

When we interview designers, one broad (but very important) question we ask them sometimes is “What is the most important aspect of design to you?” 99% of the time, the reply will be some form of “It has to be fun!” Everyone will look at each other, nod and agree, and move onto the next question. However, I’m beginning to think that isn’t necessarily the right answer. In fact, I think that answer points to a bigger problem with the medium in general – the name.

A common problem I see from the news media or people not familiar with video games is that people generally associate games with a toy or something only children and young people should “play with.” I think there’s still a fairly heavy stigma associated with post college-aged people playing games, especially if they’re hardcore gamers. I think a large portion of society expects people to “grow out of games” as they age and entertain themselves with more “serious” forms of media. I can’t really blame anyone; the word “game” is right in the term “video game” so it has to be fun, right? Isn’t that what games are all about? Playing and having fun?

Film gets off easy. The etymology of “movie” comes from the shorted version of “moving picture.” After movies included sounds of people actually taking they became “talkies”, but “movies” stuck instead. So, you have the word “movie” which is very generic. You can make anything you want within the scope of “motion pictures” and it’s still considered a movie. Movies can elicit a wide range of emotions from the viewer. Now, imagine for a second that the word “movie” is replaced with “passive fun”. How would you react if “Schindler’s List” were part of a medium called “passive fun”? It’d be weird, because as you know, Schindler’s List isn’t really all that fun to watch but you do feel something while watching it.

I’m beginning to think now as I get older and play a lot of games that the word “game” is too focused for what we want to create. Where am I going with this? I originally wanted to write about emotions players felt while playing games. However, because we’re making something called a game, there’s a huge pressure to make a game “fun” all the time. Fun is just one of many realms in which we can draw emotions from gamers, except we tend to shy away from other emotional realms as developers. If we try to deliver something other than fun, we get might get raked over the coals because after all, we’re making a “game” and games are for kids, or so the logic goes.

At least once a month, I hear someone talking about how “the games industry is really young” and “the games industry is just like the early movie industry!” This might be true, but I hardly think the medium is in it’s infancy anymore. In fact, I think we’re far past the “talkies” stage. Gamers and game developers are getting older and more sophisticated and technology is allowing us to deliver some really different and unique experiences. I mean in CoD:WaW, we showed fictional (based on history) torture scenes. We certainly weren’t sitting around a table going “Okay guys, how can we make this torture scene fun?” The scene wasn’t meant to be “fun” per-se but we wanted to deliver a quality experience and make the player feel something other than fun. There’s no game involved at this point; players aren’t really “playing” in the sense that they should be having fun, but these events are (at some points) interactive. Other parts of CoD:WaW are “fun” and very game like, because it is a “game” after all and that’s what the audience expects.

It wasn’t fun for me when I was helplessly assassinated in Call of Duty 4. It wasn’t fun in The Darkness when I watched my girlfriend get murdered. It wasn’t fun when I got caught for cheating on my husband in Fable 2. However, to me those were very emotion evoking (and therefore memorable, if you recall your psych 101 classes)  gaming moments.

I know I’m in the minority when I say don’t watch many movies or TV and my primary form of entertainment comes from games. However, the reason I originally wanted to write about emotion garnered from games is because I don’t want to just have “fun” all the time. It’s really nice to feel something different than having fun when playing a game. It’s not that I don’t enjoy having fun, or think games shouldn’t be fun or less fun. Rather, it’s more enjoyable for me to have gaming experiences that involve more than just fun all the time, just like I don’t like eating pizza and ice cream for every meal.

If the games industry really wants contend with other types of media and deliver the same types of experiences as say, movies are capable of, I think one of two things needs to happen. One, “Video Games” need to be re-branded as something else, like “Interactive Media” (but less horrible sounding) or two, society needs to get used to (or forget) that the definition of “game” is changing. It no longer means we’re talking about toys or something made purely for fun.

There’s also the problem of accessibility. Most people don’t have much trouble watching a movie – it’s an easy task to do. Games on the other hand require user input at some level, which is a barrier to entry. My wife can barely play modern console games because she “doesn’t get the controls.” That’s a whole other issue that Nintendo seems to have a short term answer for – the Wii. But Wii games are the gamiest of all. Nintendo takes an entirely different approach – Nintendo embraces their gaminess and owns it. They’re seem to only try to deliver fun and they’ve simplified their controls such that more people can play their games. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing, there’s certainly a place for that (as their sales would indicate). However, I admit I barely touch my Wii (ha!) because the games are mainly geared towards fun (and a younger audience) and not much else.

Let’s face it, it’s much easier to deliver a wider range of experiences when you can make things look however you want on screen. More powerful graphic platforms like the 360, PS3 and PC can deliver a wider range of (emotional) experiences graphically than the Wii. On the other hand the Wii can reach a larger audience due to it’s controller accessibility. Argh!

Suffice to say I like creating and delivering various emotions to gamers and it’s something I think about a lot. A common question when we design events in a game is “What is the player feeling? What should their experience be like?” and of course, at some point, “How is this can we make this fun?” I think though that because we’re making a game, the question of “fun” all too often supersedes everything else and limits what we’re capable of as developers. As a designer, I think the best thing to do is to keep pushing the envelope and continue to do unexpected things with our games. We need to break the rules, continue to innovate, stay creative and not focus on fun but instead experience. Fun is just a piece of the puzzle.

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