ACMI Game Masters: The Forums – Beyond Sloganism

ACMI’s Game Masters: The Forums continued its intellectual path with a broad discussion on some of the issues that have plagued video game development and whether the games industry has evolved beyond them, or has it all remained the same?

This forum was based on the premise of the evolving games industry claiming new opportunities in various areas of game development, and whether this was an actual fact or just a “re-branded vision of what has come before”. Due to unforeseen circumstances I was late, and the first sentence I heard when I sat down was “(Free-to-play games are) all about trying to get money out of you”. This dumbfounded me, as games have always been a capitalist venture. Games take money to make, they are a business model and current free-to-play games are usually a springboard into creating paid games or earning money through in-game currency, so of course games are about getting money. The bills have to be paid somehow.

This connected to the next train of discussion, which looked at the use of games in the workforce to make it more ‘fun’; the blurring of the boundaries between work and play. The panel argued that it’s now more acceptable for these boundaries to be blurred, and coming from an educational perspective myself, I can vouch for the popularity and usefulness of using play to aid learning and working. However, particularly in older, more traditional industries, the idea of merging work and play can be difficult to negotiate; how does one successfully make all kinds of work like play? Will this dilute play to become work? Do we need the opposites of work and play to make our lives more dynamic, more interesting, rather than just having everything as ‘play’? Much like the idea of indie pushing the boundaries of what is considered weird, one could argue that by trying to make everything play, this will push the boundaries of what is considered ‘fun’ or ‘play’. Regardless, the flexibility that comes along with the push to make work more like play is most certainly a benefit to the gamers amongst us now having to exist in the real world and get a real job.

Possibly the most interesting part of the forum was the discussion on the idea of gameplay being used to persuade, change and influence people. The argument was that the more engaged you are, the more easily you can be influenced, and of course this is highly relevant to games and their interactive nature. But this is also highly problematic – there have been endless discussions on whether audiences just passively absorb messages or actively discern them, and the wide array of media that gamers engage with can also muddle any messages that games try to send. But games by their very nature are trying to persuade you; persuade you to keep playing, to succeed, to buy more games, to support sponsors, and more recently, to buy more in-game content. There’s always a story around of children racking up bills in the hundreds of dollars from in-app purchases on their parent’s phones and tablets, obviously influenced by the game to continuously buy more. But can it ever get so bad that it should be regulated, that laws should be put into place? Laws already exist to restrict content to certain age groups, but the idea of regulating something so fluid and subjective as ‘influence’ in a medium seems nigh on impossible.

This led directly into the last topic of the afternoon: whether game developers should take responsibility for their content. The argument centred on whether game development is a science or an art; if game development is “fine tuned” to a science, responsibility should belong to the developer, but if it’s an art, where it’s an exploration of “what the artist gets from society”, responsibility no longer belongs to the developer. Game development doesn’t have to be shoehorned into one particular area; one could argue that games like Call of Duty are more like a science (areas of formulaic gameplay, constant iterations), whereas games like Journey are more like art. But this raises the interesting question of who owns the game content once it’s released? The Mass Effect fans obviously think it belongs to them, not BioWare, so should the responsibility then be shifted to the fans? It will probably always boil down to what you are answering for. This overall discussion was highlighted because of the highly violent nature of the AAA games coming out of E3. It’s easy to blame the companies for creating this content, but those games are in demand, are popular with gamers now, and the companies can argue that they are just meeting demand, so the blame can fall onto the consumers. The games that expressed the graphic violence are all successful franchises, and built that success on their violent nature – Call of Duty, Splinter Cell, Hitman…the list goes on. As I first heard in this presentation: “games are all about trying to get money out of you”, even if that money is blood tainted.