Category Archives: atari

making games matter

Game Design Reader book cover
Making Games Matter, a roundtable discussion on the past, present and future of games at Parsons the New School for Design (12/9/05), was a thought-provoking event that brought together an interesting, and heterogeneous, group of experimental game developers, game designers, and seasoned academics. Participants ranged from the creators of Half-Life, Paranoia, and Adventure for the Atari 2600 to theorists of play history and game culture. This meeting was part of DEATHMATCH IN THE STACKS celebrating the launch of The Game Design Reader: A Rules of Play Anthology, edited by Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman, and published by MIT Press. The book is a collection of essays that spans 50 years of game design and game studies.

The need to define the present of games was central to the conversation. The academics find that there is a lack of a precise vocabulary exclusive to games. At the same time, they question the use of certain terms by game designers. Videogames started outside the academy and they exhibit a certain hybrid nature, especially as they incorporate aspects of many disciplines. Now, when they are claiming their academic legitimacy, they encounter the “territorial” resistance distinctive of academia. Film or literature, for instance, can be defined within their own terms, but game theory still borrows from other disciplines to define itself. Even though games function as abstract linguistic systems, there is a resistance to analyze and to validate them. “Interactive narrative” is a new concept and it should be studied as such, not by substituting or superimposing it to other disciplines.

The term “industry” that kept coming up in the conversation, was questioned by one of the participants, as it was the use of the verb “to play” in reference to what one does with a videogame. However, do film schools question that film is an industry? What is book publishing anyway? On the other hand, the interactive nature of games, the fact that the players are part of them, is intimately tied to the notions of pleasure and enjoyment that are at the core of the concept of playing. New forms of media technology replace each other, but everyone who has played as a child has used some sort of toy, a medium for amusement and imaginative pretense. So, in fact, one “plays” videogames. When these questions were raised, game designers brought up, as a sort of definer, the differentiation between the industry as producer and the gamer as part of a community. This difference is illustrated in an article by Seth Schiesel, “For the Online Star Wars Game, It’s Revenge of the Fans,” in The New York Times (12/10/05). He reports on how for the players of the online Star Wars game, the camaraderie and friendship they developed with other players became far more important than playing itself, as they formed “relationships that can be hard to replicate in ‘real life.'” This affirmation in itself provocative, raises important questions.
star wars galaxies

Last month, LucasArts and Sony’s online game division, which have run Star Wars Galaxies since its introduction in 2003, unsatisfied with the product’s moderate success, radically revamped the game in an attempt to appeal to a younger audience. But to thousands of players, mostly adults, the shifts have meant the destruction of online communities. “We just feel violated,” said Carolyn R. Hocke, 46, a marketing Web technician for Ministry Medical Group and St. Michael’s Hospital in Stevens Point, Wis. “For them to just come along and destroy our community has prompted a lot of death-in-the-family-type grieving,” she said. “They went through the astonishment and denial, then they went to the anger part of it, and now they are going through the sad and helpless part of grieving. I work in the health-care industry, and it’s very similar.” One of the participants in Making Games Matter, referred to games as “stylized social interaction,” and Scheisel’s report shows a strikingly real side of those interactions.
After the roundtable, there was an event described as “an evening of discussion and playful debate with game critics, game creators, and game players about the past, present, and future of games.” The make-up of the group shows a refreshing permeability that academia is reluctant to acknowledge, but that is enriching and opens up all kinds of possibilities for experimentation and innovation well beyond the mere notion of play.

questions and answers

in 1980 and 81 i had a dream job — charlie van doren, the editorial director of Encyclopedia Britannica, hired me to think about the future of encyclopedias in the digital era. eb image.jpg i parlayed that gig into an eighteen-month stint with Alan Kay when he was the chief scientist at Atari. Alan had read the paper i wrote for britannica — EB and the Intellectual Tools of the Future — and in his enthusiastic impulsive style, said, “this is just the sort of thing i want to work on, why not join me at Atari.”
while we figured that the future encyclopedia should at the least be able to answer most any factual question someone might have, we really didn’t have any idea of the range of questions people would ask. we reasoned that while people are curious by nature, they fall out of the childhood habit of asking questions about anything and everything because they get used to the fact that no one in their immediate vicinity actually knows or can explain the answer and the likelihood of finding the answer in a readily available book isn’t much greater.
so, as an experiment we gave a bunch of people tape recorders and asked them to record any question that came to mind during the day — anything. we started collecting question journals in which people whispered their wonderings — both the mundane and the profound. michael naimark, a colleague at Atari was particularly fascinated by this project and he went to the philippines to gather questions from a mountain tribe.
wikipedia_logo.jpg anyway, this is a long intro to the realization that between wikipedia and google, alan’s and my dream of a universal question/answer machine is actually coming into being. although we could imagine what it would be like to have the ability to get answers to most any question, we assumed that the foundation would be a bunch of editors responsible for the collecting and organizing vast amounts of information. we didnt’ imagine the world wide web as a magnet which would motivate people collectively to store a remarkable range of human knowledge in a searchable database.
on the other hand we assumed that the encylopedia of the future would be intelligent enough to enter into conversation with individual users, helping them through rough spots like a patient tutor. looks like we’ll have to wait awhile for that.