Games for people

Ever since my move to NYC, I’ve been spending more time hanging out with people who are not in the video game industry or related fields. It’s a breath of fresh air really, both because I’m not hearing about the same old thing everyone else is talking about, but whenever I say anything half intelligent about games and play, everyone is pretty impressed. I’m challenged to explain issues in our field to outsiders because not only do we have specialist language that comes along with a particular artform but a general barrier to entry when games considered ‘good’ have gamer-specific competencies and tastes tied into them. I find often that if someone didn’t grow up playing games frequently, they didn’t really get what is interesting about them on an artistic level, only that the industry is competitive with Hollywood.

Even in more progressive circles of games, there’s still a distinction between games that are made for mass audiences, often called casual games, and those made for those with extensive gamer literacy. While the industry is trying to include those who mostly play puzzles on their phones on public transportation as ‘gamers,’ media, developers, and scholars clearly look to games developed for gamers as ones with cultural meaning, the stuff worth calling ‘art.’ Yet at the same time, we are always bound by the low bar consumer entertainment creates, experiences are always deep “for a video game.” The creation of the term ‘mid-core’ for a kind of game that pulls casual players in the direction of more ‘hardcore’ experiences shows that the industry doesn’t want to expand what it does, rather indoctrinate more people into the existing model. Given the industry’s frequent image issues on the social front, it’s not hard for discerning adults to resist the temptation.

Brie Code shares similar thoughts in her attempts to get her non-gamer friends to play games that really touched her. This really got to me because of her reference to Tim Gunn and the fashion industry’s reluctance to create for the range of bodies that exist in the world. That is, we have to be more frank about the doublespeak in games being something for everyone while being so obviously for an already established consumer base. What does it mean to design games for people rather than gamers?

If I had to guess, it would be creating opportunities for people to engage with the contexts of their lives. We often look for parallels of ourselves in our media and project aspects of our lives into art either for catharsis or as a basis for reimagining our present situation. It’s common for video games to be escapes for acts of heroism or accomplishment we can’t get in our lives, and there’s a place for that seeing it powers a monolith of an industry. Yet it seems escapist power fantasies aren’t often linked with the kind of depth and universality we would need to make games for people.

At the very least, if we’re going to leave behind entertainment consumer products to be entertainment consumer products, games aiming at social engagement and public art have to think more outside of industrial standards to have a respectable impact on the inner lives of people without gaming literacy. It shouldn’t be how to get more people playing mainstream video games, rather how can we reach past gamers to find more universal elements of interaction and craft from there. We have to remember it’s not just themes and genre preferences that connect people to an experience. Our design process is geared towards thinking of gamers, and it might be that the act of creation also needs revision, to come up with new processes that build up from the ground up, a New Design, something that speaks to more than nostalgia of a chosen few.

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