When I was first a cub reporter at the Wall Street Journal, I started writing about games. But I was always interested in the space, but through the lens of design. Rather than focusing on the nuts and bolts of technology or asking arcane questions about a game's lore, I was interested in them as creative systems. Games are functionally these playgrounds where people come to interact with design in a tactile and dynamic way.
A couple of years later, we had the pleasure of curating the first Arcade at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. During that time, which was part of a larger curatorial project, I got to know Paola Antonelli, who heads up R&D and design for the museum. She sold me on the idea that games are about interactions between players and systems. It's so conversational that games have a way of encouraging certain types of behaviors. "In video games, there's this idea of trying to plan, invite, suggest, and guide the behavior of the person," she told me. “It's the quintessential ingredient of interaction design.”
So it shouldn't be surprising that we find game design popping up in spaces that are not explicitly for games. That means outside of PC games and consoles; there's a world where games are emerging from behind closed doors and into the broader world of everyday players.
At Twofivesix, my marketing agency that prepares brands for the future of play and interactivity, we think a lot about how games are affecting culture and vice versa. In our new podcast, we go even deeper with some creators who have found meaning and beauty in games, but not in the places you might expect.
For example, Sam Von Ehren is a New York-based game designer for The New York Times, where he has created a process for prototyping and greenlighting new games. Sam has developed and publicly playtested a new game every month since June 2017, and helped lead user research and synthesis.
Sam is making games that help sell the Crossword product. As part of the Times' internal Games Expansion team, which numbers about 30, he's the only designer. So far, Von Ehren has developed the word games for the digital crossword section: Spelling Bee and Letter Boxed.
"That's what games at The New York Times are really good for—bringing more play into people's lives in a way that can be ritualized and comforting in a weird way,” he said to me. “What's nice is that we're bringing play into the lives of people who kind of don't value play as much, in comparison to other game platforms and other game sub-industries." The hope is that these quotidian titles become a part of your daily routine in the same way you read the Times with your morning coffee (or matcha!).
For Alexis Ohanian, the co-founder of Reddit, games served as a first foray into digital communities. "I see the counter go up on my GeoCities Quake II fan page and I was like, 'Oh my God,'” he recalled in our conversation for the podcast. “So you dip in. You get a little bit of HTML and start making your clan's website, and this is modding culture. Counter-Strike came out of just a bunch of random people making a mod that changed the gaming world."
Ohanian said that the openness of iD software inspired him to share more and more of his work online. But it was the ethos of creating and sharing with others that set the stage for building digital products. "To the credit of [John] Carmack and id [software], you can download the source and start building. There's a game I spent all this time playing, and it looks so professional and amazing, but I can mess with the source code, and I can build stuff,” he said.
Even for a platform like Netflix, which has film language in the title of the company, games are gaining ground. Juan Vaca, the first narrative designer at the company, used skills learned from his time at Telltale Games to bring new insight into how interactive storytelling is changing TV and film.
"As early as the writer's room I start thinking about, ‘What are the things that make this not just a great story, but a great interactive story?’" he told me. "Where in the story will the character and the player make decisions to really influence the shape of the story and how wide can we go with the branches?"
Vaca said he learned the importance of making choices matter in a novel way from the world of games. That means merging traditional game design with a more traditional understanding of storytelling, pacing, and structure. "You can't have them all be life or death choices, right?"
But the more significant opportunity is bringing games to than more than 100 million subscribers around the world. That's a considerable chance to sneak interactive storytelling to an audience that may not be playing video games in any other place.
"My parents don't get it,” he said in our conversation. “They're immigrants. They're older. They don't have access to a Steam account. They're not going to download the app and DLC on their phone. But now is the time where we can put that in their hands. I think the next thing that I want to do is to make a game for my parents. Something accessible and understandable by all."
When I left the Wall Street Journal all those years ago, I missed having wide-ranging conversations like the ones I’ve had for our podcast. It’s been great to see how games intersect with such disparate fields as newspapers, web communities, streaming platforms, fashion and more. As games are making their way everywhere, outside of the traditional PC and gaming console environment, I hope you’ll join me to see where they go next.