Wednesday, February 24, 2010

How Indie Games Have Helped Me Appreciate Games for Kids

At the DMLC last week, during the discussion period that followed our panel presentation, a delegate humorously thanked me for doing the work that I do so that others don't have to. It was a comment full of good intentions and was certainly received as such (both by myself and by the audience), but it is also a comment that I in fact receive quite often. For while studying kids' games certainly sounds like (and is) a lot of fun, the clunky, promotion-laden contents of many of the commercial games that I research can definitely make in-depth analysis and concerted exploration a bit of a challenge. It's actually a dimension of my research that I've thought a lot about, both in terms of a methodological issue as well as a potential source of researcher bias. After all, adult assessments of children's culture are always going to be problematized by issues of perspective, varying (often biased) "standards," ideological notions of children/childhood, and the necessarily "outsider" status of the adult academic.

For the seasoned gamer (as well as many non-gamer adults for that matter), playing a game designed specifically for kids is often quite a different experience from playing a game designed for teens and adults. This is particularly true of games that are designed for kids specifically rather than for a general audience of "Everyone", and even truer when looking at MMOGs. Rather than the usual themes of violence, exploration and epic adventure that shape so many fantasy MMOGs, kids' MMOGs tend to be characterized by an emphasis on lightness, casual gameplay, positive feelings (such as happiness and kindness) and commercial/popular culture. Playing these games can also be oddly underwhelming. Like many digital games designed for children, technical features and aesthetic qualities are usually much more basic (not just more accessible, but more barebones) than those found in successful mainstream games. The customizable options available in kids' MMOGs are quite limited when compared to those available in T-rated MMOGs. The different areas and activities are fragmented and unintegrated. The “mise-en-scenes” (for example, the visual background and soundscape) are static and minimalistic. And the game mechanics are crude and oftentimes “clunky” -- delayed by time lags and program glitches.

So, in order to be able to immerse myself in these worlds and begin to appreciate their unique attributes and hidden complexities, it has been essential that I first cast aside any pre-existing biases about game design and aesthetic "standards" (as best I can anyway). Many of these biases are likely the result of many years of keeping pace with the perpetual race for technological and artistic innovation that has driven the growth of the commercial games industry since the early 1990s. While comparison to mainstream games and MMOGs is at times useful, particularly when comparing children’s game design across platforms and industry sectors, it is important that I avoid letting these comparisons dictate or obscure analysis of children's games on their own terms.

In fact, some of the strongest criticisms of mainstream game development in recent years are aimed at the perceived state of creative stagnancy produced by the industry’s narrow emphasis on “technological advancement.” As Fullerton, Chen, Santiago et al. describe, “Design advancement in the industry is generally limited to feature advancement within the existing domains of market genres. […] The exploration of new genres of games is considered risky in all regards: gameplay, technology, design and market viability." Like film before it, an important source of resistance and challenge to the status quo is found among the independents, who lack the big budgets required to compete in the industry’s endless race toward technological advancement, but as a result also have more freedom and impetus to attempt different types of innovation.

Accordingly, some of the most critically acclaimed games of the past few years have come out of independent game design studios, such as flOw, Flower and Cloud (created by Chen and produced by Santiago, who now run That Game Company), World of Goo (by 2D Boy), The Path (by Tale of Tales) and Okami (by the now defunct Japanese independent Clover Studios) (AND Braid, Submachine, Scarygirl, And Yet It Moves, Today I Die, etc., etc., etc.). Each of these “indie games” won multiple awards for originality and design innovation, and was widely celebrated by both the industry and the gaming culture (of players, fans, and critics). Yet none of them feature the type of "realistic" three-dimensional graphics, expansive level structures and expensive production qualities found within the mainstream games that usually set the hegemonic standard.

Instead, the emphasis within the indie games mentioned above is on the uniqueness of the graphics, on unusual innovations and manipulations of the gameplay mechanics, and on contributing to the advancement of something other than a Moore’s Law vision of technological advancement. Okami features a Japanese scroll-inspired game environment upon which the player can “paint” new objects and actions using the game controller to manipulate a giant virtual paintbrush. In World of Goo, the individual levels are spatially limited and contain simple, cartoonish graphics. However, the game is remarkable in the innovation of its physics, with which players must interact in increasingly complex ways in order to create structurally sound bridges and towers out of living gobs of goo. The main goal of gameplay within both flOw and Cloud is to attain a particular emotional state. There are no points or missions other than exploration, immersion and emotional investment in the gameplay process itself. Because these games are attempting to push and even break open existing standards and expectations of what a digital game should look and feel like, they defy established modes of comparison and evaluation.

Even within the established digital game industry, increasing attention is now placed on innovation, with the various console systems that now (or soon will) enable kinetic gameplay, multi-modal games that players can access across a variety of platforms, and a reconsideration of game design fundamentals. This is in fact particularly the case within child-inclusive games, most notably found in numerous titles released by Nintendo over the past couple of years, including Wii Sport, Super Mario Galaxy, Cooking Mama and Super Princess Peach. What this growing movement in game design demonstrates is that simple can be sophisticated, and that innovation cannot always be measured by size, scope and the number of pixels alone.

In terms of how this relates to the current discussion, there are many potential overlaps between indie games and children’s MMOGs. After all, children’s virtual worlds are a new phenomenon, and represent a clear break from the norms that have developed over the course of the past decade within MMOG design, including the tendency to develop games that specifically (and oftentimes exclusively) target a core gamer demographic consisting of young men between the ages of 14 to 32 years. Not to mention the fact that the games’ developers tend be outsiders themselves in relation to the established digital games industry. Perhaps some design limitations and a different set of emerging standards should be expected as new voices break into game development, and as new player communities are introduced into the existing MMOG culture.

Anyway - just some thoughts I've had about my process and about how to further contextualize my research &/or findings. I've never actually taken on or addressed this comment head on, and thought it might be time to hash out what my position actually is. My own growing love and appreciation for indie games, casual games and puzzle games has developed concurrent to (and possibly intertwined with) my ongoing study of kids' games, so there's also a definite "chicken or egg" phenomenon going on here. But the key theme that I take away from all this is that a shift in perspective has allowed me to find joy, meaning and value in a much broader spectrum of digital games (and game designs), which has not only helped my research but has also enriched my leisure experience immensely.

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