Lesson in Failure

"The Gamification of Death": Michael Abbot (Brainy Gamer) provides a write-up of Margaret Robertson's Game Developers Conference talk. Previously a strident evangelist for the unlimited potential of games, her tone this year was more tempered: She and her company had been tasked with making a game to accompany a documentary about a woman whose death in her apartment went unnoticed for three years (with the TV on the whole time). This proved to be rather difficult.

The subtitle of her talk was “How the Hardest Game Design Challenge Ever Demonstrates the Limits of Gaming.” That detail about the TV being on makes for a whole bunch of possibilities, but none of them would be quite tasteful enough, I suppose. I wonder if the problem isn’t that games can’t deal with a death like this, but rather that games being made in the service of something else, in this case a movie (and its marketing?), are pretty hamstrung from the get go.

  1. I understand and applaud the intention behind pushing the limits of what ‘games’ are into this kind of territory.

    We end up in the same kind of ‘to-define-it-kills-it’ territory that every discussion about something being ‘real art’ or not gets into, the same endless circular argument.

    Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It’s certainly better than thing being cut-and-dried when we think about what games ‘really are’ and what as an activity gaming ‘really is’.

    Now, to me, ‘a game to accompany a documentary about a woman whose death in her apartment went unnoticed for three years’ is not something I have any interesting in ‘playing’ or even ‘experiencing’ if that’s the better verb to to use. For me personally, that’s not what I look for in games, in the same way that, say, meta-commentary is not something I look for in painting.

    But I’m fine with people making it and other people enjoying or getting edification of some kind from it. The truth, as always, is that Sturgeon’s Law is in effect, and a pretty small percentage of anything is truly great.

    I think that you’re probably right to an extent, though, and that games made in the service of something else (but ‘something else’ is a very wide category indeed), like anything creative (or any kind of ‘art’ if we want to go that far) can be compromised by that service.

    ‘Can be’ being the key phrase, though. And it always pays to define our terms. What do we mean by ‘in service to’?

    Not only that, but it depends on what the creation is in service to. Is it commerce? Well, chances are that we’ll be looking at compromise that devalues the end result of the creative process. But to suggest that, say, Guernica is compromised because it is to some extent in service to a political statement, well that’s kind of silly.

    As always: it’s complicated.

  2. Yeah, we’re pretty much in broad agreement, I think. And where I say such a piece is ‘hamstrung from the get go’ the alternate read on that would be ‘supplied with a set of initial constraints,’ as is every bit of production in every medium. (Plus it strikes me that a good counter-example for a successful set of projects in the service of another project’s marketing might be the Serious Sam Indie series from last year).

    But I’d totally be interested in seeing a brief game where, say, you’re the dead person and for some reason you can still twitch a couple of the muscles in your hand, a hand that, conveniently, was gripping the remote control when rigor mortis set in.

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