Refining Institutions to Accommodate Incompatible Design Philosophies

Game developers have to face that not all developers' visions, philosophies and cultures are compatible while recognizing that we want to have avenues to recognition available to everyone who puts the legwork into game development.

As humans evolved in society, language evolved with them. We started with non-verbal communication and then began using the first signatory grunts that evolved into oral communication. For centuries humans operated under the oral tradition. Then, a new technology hit the scene: reading and writing. The stories passed down through the oral tradition began to be transcribed by those who could read and write -- a scribe class.

There are those who theorized that in the 20th century humans began crossing over into a new more prevalent form of communication: visual communication -- the communication of thoughts through images. And now in our very own time period we have something quite novel as well, this interactive form of communication, with the advent of computer programming.

This form of communication can communicate experiences in ways never accessible before. You can convey the fear and anxiety of a situation, you can make someone feel 'brave' or 'ashamed'. You can give someone full agency to make their own emergent discoveries or author their experience entirely or anything in between. This heightened form of communication is something all humans need to be able to access as rapidly as possible -- everyone has something worth communicating.

So what's the point of this? The point is to say: game development is not a brotherhood. Well, not any more than general literacy is a brotherhood. The authorship pool of game makers will necessarily expand. I think most people agree that's a good thing. But it comes at a price: the more it expands the less it will be a brotherhood. As it expands, people will have to expect that people who deeply disagree with them will appear inevitably. Fox News will find its MSNBC; Alan Moore will find Frank Miller; corporations will make games and people who hate corporations will make games.

There are lines of tension that exist in what's around currently, mostly around things like budget size (AAA console, indie, social games, etc.); and form (experience simulations, playcentric games, authored narratives, etc); and cultural group (obviously every developer or collection of developers has its own individual characteristics). Hell, there are even divisions between old people and young people, men and women, and others. These divisions were not created by a person. They weren't ginned up or manufactured or created by scheming; they are natural divisions. As more people make games, there will be more divisions. If everyone in the world made games, you might find that the divisions reflected in the 'games scene' would simply be exactly the same as the divisions of the real world.

Those in games are probably familiar with these groups. You watch these groups for a while and you start to see some patterns emerging. You hear David Jaffe say narrative doesn't belong in games; you hear Anna Anthropy advocating firm minority quotas for indie dev events; you hear about EA suing Zynga, Activision suing EA, Activision suing itself, Activision suing Double Fine; you hear Apple openly trash Microsoft and vice versa; you hear some people decrying predatory f2p practices while others extoll them; you see representatives of major studios publish articles demanding that journalists dismiss and caricature the views of people who don't like them, and potentially successfully. Like any major form of media, you start seeing major players beget contemporaries as Socrates begat Aristotle, and you see schools of thought become institutionalized.  You see people fight against the institutionalization of bad ideas. All of these things are healthy. They also have something else in common: they are all well-meaning, idealistic notions that manifested as a sort of fascistic demand or act of aggression.

Without getting bogged down into detailing any of these lines of tension in particular, we have to face that not all developers' visions, philosophies and cultures are compatible while recognizing that we want to have avenues to recognition available to everyone who puts the legwork into game development.

Instead of dismissing these divisions as imaginary, despite their regular recurrence, we have to analyze common divisions and create a system which allows extremely divergent viewpoints to healthily co-exist.

As divisions tend to come from lack of resources, we need to recognize that structures of power have arisen in games that play a huge part in picking winners and losers for distribution of resources and they need to be reconfigured to minimize curation bias. They are threefold: systemic, cultural and financial.

Systemically, a) the major publishing platforms are owned by private entities with overt curation biases; Apple does not allow controversial 'cultural' or 'serious' games such as littleloud's Sweatshop simulator; Sony and the other major consoles to not allow 'low production quality' games on their system, an effective ban on hobbyists and unfunded indies; XBox, for the longest time, required devs to use XNA; Ouya, home of the indies b) festival judges (be it studio or indie, DICE or IGF) are festival winners -- on one hand this is a great idea, but without some outlet to get fresh eyes in the selection process there is a risk of, with each year, slowly institutionalizing things are popular by in-group similarity of the judges.

Culturally, I'm talking about groups, networks and otherwise person to person support. Some cultural networks are quite built up; and others not, but yet everyone competes against the same imaginary rubric of quality. People will have anecdotal disagreements but factually game development has not been an inclusive world. Only 2% of developers are black or hispanic. A minority of women. You can find Anna Anthropy railing on the built up 'systems of oppression' in games all over the internet, but to generalise it beyond gender or even anything specific: the game development community has a number of cultural attributes that create a curation bias. These biases keep people out of the community either aggressively (such as by sexual harrassment) or passive aggressively (such as by non-acceptance). Culture often defines a series of unwritten rules that make no sense to outsiders and this game development culture is no different. To deny that it exists or say that every game developer going to the same events and same parties year after year, seeing the same people in their network, talking about the same subjects, is a complete individual not subject to demography and with no in-grouping characteristics, is beyond science's rational understanding of human behavior.

Financially, there are a great deal of funding opportunities in games. The funding opportunities, as is the right of the providers, come with an inherent curation bias, regardless of what that is: displays of initiative, perceived quality, favorite genres, a relationship with the team, etc. The fact of the matter though, is that money is voice -- the funding comes from built-up institutions to support whatever trait it deems worthy of supporting; to use an analogy, the funding sources fill the rooms with a few people with huge megaphones, the rest left to whisper. There is not much to do about it beyond the endless search for more sources of funding, but we have to recognize that every fund giving comes with a healthy dose of curation bias. When Konami decided not to fund 6 Days in Fallujah, they made a choice, like Apple does now, that games stay away from controversy; as a company with influence (especially at that time), had they made a different decision, the landscape today might look very different.

For ages, people in academia denied that there was any selection bias which kept African American and other minority student enrollment low. Then sociologists discovered that white people did disproportionately well on the qualifying tests because the authors of the tests, white people, had used anecdotal situations in the questions which related to the white test-takers suburban, middle class lives, but seemed totally foreign and abstract to the minority test takers.

So why do we need to mitigate these biases? Why not just be libertarians about it -- every man for himself, and some people get advantages and others need to start from scratch. America, hard work, etc -- ?

Well for one, every person with a new viewpoint who's joined in on developing games has added a great deal of fantastic vibrance, whether that viewpoint comes from an under-represented different background (architects, writers, musicians, set designers, etc), gender, socioeconomic situation or general worldview.

Secondly, and more importantly, the reason is that the new authors are coming, whether people in the gaming community want them to or not. People want to make games. Any of those people who makes games will try to access the resources available to people who make games; if we don't have institutions which accommodate extremely divergent viewpoints we will only see more friction as people are forced to be connected into some kind of abstract community where there are serious entrenched biases about what kind of project, what kind of person, and what kind of worldview gets rewarded. If you think transgender firebrands railing on white men are hard to deal with, wait until your Rush Limbaughs and your Alex Joneses start making games. Every single one of these people has a right to participate in the 'game development community', and they will be wanting systemic, cultural and financial inclusion, and if not for themselves, for those resources to be distributed fairly.

Which really brings me full circle: game development is not a brotherhood. The republican who makes games about republican stuff and the liberal who makes games about liberal stuff are not made friends by their game making. The already numerous types of game maker who can't agree on the rubric by which games should be judged will only grow more numerous.

The demand for clear rubrics and fair distribution of resources will only grow, and games, being subjectively judged, find themselves in an awkward place here as they struggle with how to judge something like dys4ia against something like Monaco -- two things that should not even really be competing together as being the same category of 'thing', beyond being digital and interactive really. Not meeting this demand will only result in what it has resulted in historically: new, rival institutions -- for instance, Ouya was a response to consoles to fulfill Indies need for inclusion; the different games movement appears after the 1 reason to be event at IGF because indies didn't meet that group's demands for inclusion.

It's not a problem without solutions. Systemically more open console and publishing platforms can be made; Apple can be pressured to change its policies; guest judges from diverse backgrounds and viewpoints can be invited to in some official capacity just give their two cents with some weight. Culturally, behaviors can be changed or guided to promote inclusiveness. Financially, funding can be given in a less winner-takes-all format and more peace-meal; rubrics that judge the quality of games can be reworked. Reliance by developers on any of these resources could be reduced and thus tension, by going to the sources and further reducing the barriers of entry to game making, publishing and marketing.

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