Monday, September 22, 2008

Spore for Kids and the Future of Gaming

If you've been reading the gaming blogs, you already know that EA/Will Wright's new species creation/simulation game Spore is attracting a LOT of attention...acclaim, condemnation, outrage and enthusiasm from gamers on just about every side of the great (gaming) debates. The game is either the greatest thing since sliced bread or a shining example of corporate copyright regimes gone amok, but in either case I'm pretty darn fascinated by both its impact and potential. Here's a quote from a recent CBS News story on the game:
"Spore... is considered one of the most ambitious computer games of all time. The object is to CREATE life, not destroy it. It's a game about evolution..where players start as spores and develop into creatures who build civilizations and explore space... It's educational and appealing to girls and families."

The news segment and accompanying interview with Will Wright both promote Spore as a great game for kids...and I think (in theory, not having played the game myself yet) I would agree. The game focuses on creating and collaborative story-telling, on action and consequence, on possibilities and open-ended gameplay. It does sound a lot like Will Wright's other games (which include The Sims games) in some ways, but it also seems to be more firmly aligned with the exciting new crop of UGC games/more experimental games that are coming out of late.

While I haven't seen much in the way of marketing aiming Spore specifically at the child gamer demographic, its makers (including Wright himself) have described the game as purposefully inclusive in terms of the design and difficulty level of gameplay - they wanted to appeal to that larger Wii audience, to appeal to casual gamers, and evidently target gamers of all ages. Of course, the idea of targeting "everyone" is pretty problematic...even though the game may be designed for broad appeal (which in itself raises questions about how "broad appeal" is conceived and configured), its marketing and the surrounding discourses do a lot to position the game within specific target demographics. For example, there are many games designed to appeal to both girls and boys (think of the Super Mario titles), but that are also marketed quite specifically at boys. The idea within kids' media and marketing remains that girls will "cross-over" and buy products/media portrayed as "for boys" (or "for boys and girls"), but that boys will reject anything that is associated with girls. For years now, this has resulted in a predominance of boys and male characters within children's media, and the sad fact that unless the product is question is hyper-feminized (think My Little Pony, Bratz or Winx Club), the default user/audience is configured as male. Anyway, all this to say that just because these games might be great for kids and designed with kids (at least partially) in mind, doesn't mean that they will actually reach kids. Which is too bad, because kids and the kids' gaming environment could use some innovative, well-designed new entries.

Games like Spore are a great example of a new trend in digital games design that defies most mainstream conceptions of gaming. I've had the great fortune of playing a number of these types of games over the past few months -- from Valve's Portal, to Jenova Chen's flOw, to Q-Games' PixelJunk Eden, to Clover Studio/Capcom's Okami -- which was recently re-released for the Wii. With LittleBigPlanet less than a month away, I think that these notions of gaming as a form of creative, imaginative play are going to start to finally extend into the mainstream (i.e. non-gamers). And if the controversies around Spore's DRM are any indication, a broader acceptance of user-creativity in digital gaming could also lead to some real advances being made in the realm of intellectual property/authorship law and perhaps even the establishment of some real user rights to counterbalance the current state of corporation takes all when it comes to digital culture. On the other hand, so many of these excellent, innovative, inclusive (in terms of age and gender) games seem to keep slipping under the market's radar...and that's where marketing and popular discourses seem to come into play in a big way. I doubt Spore will be counted among these lost gems, but then again there's no guarantee that it will hit all the markets that it intends to. Right now, a lot of gamer types seem to be playing it, but as I described above, I haven't seen all that much attention being paid to the game from within the kids' gaming market and surrounding culture. Lots of questions here about the relationship between the children's industries, marketing, and the game industry's hesitation to directly associate certain games with the children's market.

1 comment:

Melvin said...

Spore is awesome the game lets you travel the galaxy. There are over 500,000 unique planets to explore! That's just unbelievable! Also you can create any type of creature and all the creatures you run into are from other players. No other game can claim this.. The best part of this game is the space phase, you could spend a lifetime exploring all the planets and meeting new creatures.. This game is limitless, there is no other game that comes close to this one.
Anyway, if you have time, take a visit to my Download Games website.