Featured Blog

The Art of invention, the ploughing proclivity and other matters

A director from New Zealand heads to the USA in 2009 to film game making. She considers what inspired her to capture developer enthusiasm. Here she visits indiecade, 2011. US AND THE GAME INDUSTRY,89 mins with Rohrer,thatgamecompany,Bruce,Wilson and Gage

This is the Century of Making Things

Stewart Brand(1)

I read it as said that during the Italian Renaissance, many more families learned to play a musical instrument, the lute being one.  Another of the features that defined that culture was the increase in acts of movement. Everyone learnt to dance. In the twenty-first Century physics brought us the Cell Processor and in one instance, for Play Station 3, this allowed a physics graduate to invent a fluidity of movement in a video game with the newly found power of the PS3 programmer.
Still 1. John Edwards, lead programmer, thatgamecompany, (Right) looks into a programming challenge with Bryan Singh, designer/ programmer, on the build of JOURNEY

John Edwards engineered a game called FLOWER(2009). Its fresh element was to be movement in the abstract for a petal traveling in a mechanic that simulated the wind. Play occurs by titling and twisting a motion-sensitive controller.  He rendered out single grass blades to enhance immersion into the play environment of the game. The increased stability of the Sony multicore processor allowed him to make possible the rendering of 200,000 individual blades, spreading the task of these to synergistic processing units in the Cell. This was a quantum advance in solutions for technology to serve the humanities. 

What makes the innovative talent and why are games part of the making culture this century? The idea of 10,000 hours of achieved practice as a base requirement for breakthrough for the long term was framed with pop culture enthusiasm by Malcolm Gladwell fairly recently. He honed in on one core requirement, this being the necessary amount of practice required for a person to be at a threshold ready to excel in a chosen discipline whether it is musical application, sport prowess, dance, or, now coding. Only so many crossed the threshold in the late twentieth century to become what they are today, individuals flourishing in maturity as video-game programmers. They are a lucky subset who seem to feel and act with this awareness. It might explain the bursting forth of the independents in a wave of confidence and freedom that occurred in the second decade of the twentyfirst Century as individuals grasped opportunities to the full.  For this film, with Rohrer, Hunicke, Chen, Santiago, Edwards,Nava,Clarke, Wilson, Bruce and Gage et al, it is this high caliber of computer engineering for the humanities which struck me as appealing as a representation of a cultural time and gave me purpose in making the film.

The thought of game programming brought me to ploughing recently when, to my delight I read Ian Bogost draan analogy about his meditative activities in the introduction of his book with the game, A SLOW YEAR(2010). We all often, in our private worlds, spend our lives seeking grace and harmony by finding something to practice that may go deep within us. Many of us call such activity a hobby. For some it became computer programming. For some it has been ploughing. My experience is closer with this early discipline.

I grew up on an animal and crops farm  established in the mid nineteenth Century.

 By the twentieth Century, the art of ploughing, particularly in the Republic of Ireland, Denmark, France, England, Belgium, Croatia, Canada, USA, Republic, Germany, Australia, Finland, Kenya, Estonia Hungry, Czech and out in my country, New Zealand, is a serious amateur competition event. It is having something of a revival lately, so much so that in a wine growing district north of me, a farmer put off planting a crop of grapes for two years so that he could donate land for the challenge because he so loved the idea of being a ploughing host. My dad was competitive with a plough. He was a farm Estate manager. As a hobbyist he was an artisan with a beautiful touch with cabinetry.  He was also competitive with a plough. The environment I grew up in was a landscape of earth, trees, birds, air, sun, rain, grass, insects, crop rotations and animals. It was a tooled world, the tools bought to attend to the maintenance of the economic well-being of two owner families and two employees and their families. The farm yard areas still held reminders of England earlier than Nineteenth Century, dressed as it was with  objects. There was the iron-banded dray under the tree, the forge and anvil for the farrier, the hand-crank wool press for the bales right down to timber planes and the  hay hook. Dad ploughed for productive reasons and that’s where he had year by year gained his hours of practice. In considering that he took immense pleasure in making neat furrows true and to optimum depth, the fact is he also did so as an enjoyment of the art of making a set of relationships between technology, earth and self a spatially coordinated achievement.  He started into competitions in his 40’s in the forties. I remember going down very early morning to see the whole ploughing kit loaded up on a hired freight truck from off of a grass bank for these days. In his 60’s he was World President for a year at Lincoln University grounds and at seventeen I got to accompany him to the evening festivities where I danced the waltz and the quickstep with the men of Europe, ate off the banquet table with the full stuffed pig with the apple in its mouth and continued to hardly ever look back.

 In order to make fine adjustments for the link ball joints, he shifted the calibration of the plough heights and angles by turning beautifully balanced small wheels. (This was before hydraulics. industrialized hydraulic parts came in the sixties). To effect these he would have to stop the tractor, get off and hand-turn these, some with fixed handles, some on long shafts that extended right down to the forward blades.  About the properties of iron I learned the cold touch, saw the curved horseshoes pounded and witnessed iron for its solid strength. American engineering delivered my dad the Caterpillar and the International Harvester tractor.

Tasks have their beauty and their grace, helped, certainly, by well designed technologies. This we know  from pre-industrial behaviours, whether field scything, net fishing, tortilla making, hand milking, wool spinning and more.  Tasks well achieved are personal investments and processes whereby the synergy between human and tool give us the possibility to be in lovely subjective spaces.  The average age of a computer game developer is 31 years. The dawning of the personal computer for school pupils three generations since early 20th-Century has attracted a  different competitive set. The first emerging developers fitted their hobby around schoolwork. They segued their skills in a beat from amateur proficiency to full experimental capability in computer coding as a cultural accomplishment. Many of those born in the eighties generation started logging major hours entering high-school games competitions. John Edwards is one of this kind. Such adventurers who had access to well equiped libraries or a school, or had the general luck of exposure to these new machines provided by parents and then advanced highschool or university labs, are the second wave now using this machine to such a prolific degree, and enough time has gone by with practice that we are seeing more results from individual experimentation and innovation.  Edwards is the Lead Programmer at thatgamecompany in Santa Monica, USA. A discussion of aspects of engineering for a recent game, JOURNEY(2012)come though in the film.

We know that the penchant for making and creating has passed particularly well to engineers, craftspeople, musicians, image makers and food preparers all through time-the discipline of action and response with systems, tools and materials, giving us objects that function specifically for purpose and/or perhaps solely for private insight.  Beyond functionalism is the act of expression.   Code as tapestry. Turing might have thought this had he been given retirement years; code used rather as Monet filled his canvases with sky and commingled water lilies. The expressionists introduced colour to us to experience the profound in existence. Now Turning has intellectual descendants thinking of more ideas for the use of A.I . They no doubt feel indebted to him.

 Still 4 A pointillist fan doodle about the game,
Game of Thrones , 2011         

When Bogost wrote of Atari programming as being like ploughing I surprised myself thinking about my dad. Yet, a reflection upon his choice of pursuit made me think over a few layers and connections. What he loved to do told me about certain spatial enjoyments with body and tool. In the postindustrial world with processors the most ubiquitous site for curiosity, this tool was the draw and designers have made much of prowess with this instrument in sporting ways. High skill performance reflects a contented and centered humility as well as an edge.  Think of the art of calligraphy or martial arts. Programming is a kind of a Zen. For computer game designing, besides the engineers, add the visualizers that choose the pixel and polygon, some grandsons and granddaughters of women and men who used to needlework and knit with ply and thread  who now draw on Wacoms or on planes and axis of x and y before these marks are conjoined with programming code. The creative space available to explore here has abundance. It is no wonder that the game development scene contains a contemporary appeal.

Still  5. Design in The Castle Doctrine, (2013) by Jason Rohrer

Back in the rural 1940’s people never locked their sheds or their houses. From when did ideas for Roher’s new game The Castle Doctrine come? It shall likely simulate adrenalin and heatbeats at pace.  A person’s alertness and strategic logic is requested here for play. As all good house burglars would advise, deliberate steady breathing ought to clearly help play here(!) Rohrer told Leigh Alexander that he remembers his dad quite taken with home security devices. He describes him as a "nervous protector" figure, who very much aimed to fulfill the "man of the house" prescription(2)  As can be the case, Rohrer must have stored impressions of his father’s preoccupation.   The Castle Doctrine harnesses an intricate dedicated use of engineering for an original creation of fiction. Here is an extract of bug-fixing documentation on the forum pre-game release for the 25th version of the game that hints at a mind of wit with systems and detail.

Fig 1. Below. An excerpt from the forum report on bugs fixed in The Castle Doctrine from Jason Rohrer before release, 2013-2104

Still 6. Indiecade, 2011, Culver City, Los Angeles

I wrote about quite a different branch of ideas last October in response to Stuart Hall who wrote. He had asked, Does this developer era compare to the counterculture of the sixties... the music and the culture?  If we were to hone in to the guinea-pig set who took LSD in the government funded experiments in the Stanford University Psychology Department, the answer would be “No”, literally speaking. Yet indeed “Yes” for a refound glee in the absurd and in the desire to undertake free exploration. The outcome is that playful application of mind to system rather than mind to  chemistry has blossomed.

A computer programmer applies logic to the creation of systems. Some 21st Century representatives who study human behaviour have seen that play research is an opening and that there is a culture to be plied. Just the other day a friend of a friend passed away and that friend with partner came down to the funeral. We had little time for long conversation but words came up about Detroit. Jenny recalled riots in streets in the late sixties, with pilfering rampant and a deeply agonized mid-twentieth Century USA embroiled in race relations.She noted how one cannot underestimate the stresses then brought on by the Cuban crisis and the  assassination of more than one Kennedy in that generation. Specific to individuals in the sixties in the Western World were challenges to conservatism.

Douglas Wilson and I mulled over ideas sources in conversation last March.  Wilson had had induction into a Californian cultural past as a Stanford undergraduate.  Including the formative customs of American summer camp, he also noted curriculum awareness of Psychology Professor, Stewart Brand. Brand shared his” understandings “of how playfulness may be taught for play as well as play with purpose. Brand had also had much to say about the use of personal computer as revolution and had smoothly perceived and described the elision of counter culture to cyber culture in his student days. That culture had harangued the computer as a representation of the cold war. The computer as object, to them then, had required a transformation.

When I was in Culver City at the Independent Games Festival in 2011, that event seemed to be a strongly visible site of popular play at vanguard levels. There is a framework here of 21st Century geography. Buzzing cafes and shops are engagingly back dropped by an iconic twenties Culver City movie studio and the Pacific theaters. Then, within the apex of roads to this one hundred year old entertainment city, Indiecade takes place just about for free and as much outdoors as in. There is a bronze dedicated to past settlers who tended cattle herds outside the nineteenth century  heirloom hotel and it was the thought of  colonial displacements of many other  lifestyles before that that made me first stop me to think about the place as a zone of creative  re-alignment. Indiecade is a festival about a  new urban 'settler grouping' who travel light as compared to the mainstream. Here the joys of toil and enthusiasm pun the old, even very old “cade” usage and advance diversity at a social center of video games entertainments.  Wilson is confident as an explorer of the public game. I watched him instruct initiates to J.S.JOUST in the fire-station after its first night of play where I had a play. 

In a moment when I had my still camera, I saw two men talking who are both alert to cultural transformations. The man on the right, Eddo Stern, is an artist who explores the power of the unconscous and the impact of electronic stimulations on ideas. He straddles cultures of fantasy, game design, history and technology in his work and is a motivator in design milieus. He is curated, too, 

for ideas for  public realms.

For example, Steve Dietz commissioned Stern to make Fake Portal #2 in 2008.  Wilson was that year winding up his post graduate studies at IT, Copenhagen, the school of Computer Science and Design Technology and already excited at his decision to become a games developer entrepeneur. Interactive research places people at the center of processes where the beauty of intangible experiences is studied as treasure. I saw that Wilson was deploying a corporate piece of software in an astute affective way for human psychology. When designing JOUST, he took the dynamic of slow motion as his motif. Developmental steps for him had come after the DIE GUTE FABRIK B.U.T.T.O.N game(Brutally unfair tactic OK now).  In JOUST, If you move the controller rashly you lose. Early players took up play almost literally, hiving off to corners of rooms at EYEBEAM in 2011 with costumes and neo-fantasy medieval thrusts. Down in Austin, Texas, one of a group playing in a private game went and hid in the bath, quickly becoming panicked by Hitchcockian connotations.   A private play experience captured on video when Wilson and his friends went to Death Valley, East California, gives the game whimsy in the surrounding majesty of nature. Track Wilson to Indiecade 2013 and he was  still found  to be working out opportunities with the move controller laterally. Enjoy, for example, the tone of “Edgar Rice Soirée” (3)

 Indiecade at Culver City stands an idea. It stands out as a happening ‘uptown place’ where an emphasis on making is reflective of the times.  It is a volunteer organization with a finger on the pulse of significance of the artfulness of games and the laughter and support of community. One has only to think of the CEO, Stephanie Barish’s prior activities to see her as one attesting to a love of the field and affirming that the digital world is important in the twenty first Century.

Stills 7 and 8.   Designer and Developer, Douglas Wilson of DIE GUTE FABRIK, shows Professor Eddo Stern the J.S. JOUST rule, Indiecade, 2011

Every representative in the film carries an ideal of integrity in work. The fortune of these to enjoy their love of research and to apply and build with logical thinking for whatever they design is adding dimension to contemporary culture.

 Director. US AND THE GAME INDUSTRY (2013)


Bogost. I. A Slow Year. 2010

Brier. D, Self-taught programmer from Shoreline now cutting-edge game developer.March 16. 2009

Durrant. W.  Ch. ‘xx’. Renaissance Man. A History of Civilization in Italy from 1304-1576.A.D. Simon and Schuster. New York.1953

Gladwell, M. Outliers. The story of success.Penguin Books,2009

Jeffrey Mishlove’s programme, Thinking Allowed,

McElroy, G.



2.Alexander.L. 12/12/2013 Gamasutra.



Explore the
Advertise with
Follow us

Game Developer Job Board

Game Developer


Explore the

Game Developer Job Board

Browse open positions across the game industry or recruit new talent for your studio

Advertise with

Game Developer

Engage game professionals and drive sales using an array of Game Developer media solutions to meet your objectives.

Learn More
Follow us


Follow us @gamedevdotcom to stay up-to-date with the latest news & insider information about events & more