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Video games will save the world

Former Game Developer Magazine editor-in-chief Patrick Miller takes a second to reflect on why he thinks the work we do in video games now informs lots of important stuff besides just entertainment.

From where I sit, it's not hard to see all the many ways that video games fall flat. Triple-A is allergic to new ideas; indies can't see past their own navel; our entry-level pathways to the industry are plagued with dead ends and poor labor practices; on balance, we're a medium dominated by straight white cis men; our online spaces are slums of shit; and so on, and so on. It's easy to see all the bad stuff everywhere, just piling up everywhere, especially if Video Games is where you work on a daily basis.

A few months ago I was chatting with my then-boss Simon Carless, baller/shot-caller for GDC, and he observed that, as bad as things seemed in games at any given moment (particularly with respect to issues of power and stratification), that they seemed a whole lot healthier than any other comparable sector. I've been mulling over that for a bit since then. On one hand, Simon is literally The Man when it comes to video games (and I'm sure he loves it when I remind him of that); on the other hand, his perspective and insight into the holistic world of video games is pretty much crazy deep, so I couldn't just write it off.

Since then, I've come to the conclusion that video games will save the world. Because a lot of the problems we're tackling now, at various places in the broader world of Video Games, are problems that we'll all have to tackle elsewhere, eventually -- and nowhere do I see those problems being tackled as enthusiastically as I do with video games.

The virtues of a young medium

Video games are a fascinating place where technology (and tech capital) intersect with art and creation, and with academia, and as a popular medium with the general public. It's an industry where we literally create new worlds to solve problems in -- problems whose solutions inevitably prove relevant to the world out of video games, as our work goes on to inform everything from medicine to the military.

It seems like every day in games I see people working on solving problems that simply have no Big Book of Solutions. These problems are in human-computer interaction, in economies that have both virtual- and real-world boundaries, in skills acquisition and training, in network engineering, in entertainment content and event production, in manufacturing and distribution, in international brand-building, and so on -- and that isn't even talking about the actual development of the game itself!

Just look at what Valve is doing with selling digital goods and defining how we think of our virtual "inventories"; what Oculus VR is doing to engineer around our physical quirks and limitations; what Twitch is doing to turn play into performance; all of this work will undoubtedly have reverberating impacts upon the next hundred years of humanity. Games and play drives change in technology; technology drives change in society; society changes games and play.

Our pioneers mostly aren't dead yet

In the world of video games, there is a cultural hegemony around what is and isn't a game -- hegemony which is often used by some to exclude marginalized creators' works (see the periodic senseless hate for Gone Home, Depression Quest, etc.). But this hegemony isn't insulated by generations upon generations of dead creators, nor institutionalized worship for their works. Instead, those creators are still alive, still talking, often creating still, well into their third or four acts of their career. And the subsequent generations of devs who they inspired are still at it as well.

So we have different generations of creators all working in conversation with each other (and we're finding that both the early pioneers and the new folks actually have a lot in common, as it turns out). No, this conversation is not perfect, but it's happening, and I think it's important that these conversations are happening while this medium is still very much in a formative period.

(In fact, it turns out that it's the too-well-trained mainstream consumers themselves that reject the games from the margins; one need just look at Gone Home's presence in the Game Developers Choice Awards, right up there next to the epitome of Hollywood-game-blockbuster The Last of Us, to see that the rhetorical policing the boundaries of "video game" is largely coming from certain segments of players, not the devs themselves. I think we may find that money is interested in making more Gone Homes, even if WeedSmokeBalls420 is not interested in playing them yet.)

The Internet is a shithole, and we live in it

One important thing we've learned over the last 20 years is that people on the Internet are dicks.

Thing is, games have grown up along with the Internet. The Internet is part of our collective DNA. Anyone who plays video games and doesn't interface with the Internet at all -- no multiplayer, no news or forums or Twitter, no online marketplace, nothing -- might as well be the games equivalent of a hermit, or maybe someone who doesn't own a TV and is a little proud of that.

Which means that when people on the Internet are dicks, it necessarily affects our enjoyment of video games -- something which isn't nearly as true (yet) about music or film or literature, from what I can tell. And that means we need to find ways to solve the problem of Internet Jerks -- whether it's professionalizing community moderation, intelligently structuring various Internet communications media to encourage certain kinds of discourse, propagating community values and standards, learning how to carve out online comfort zones and "personal space", opening ongoing conversations about marginalized groups and social justice issues, etc.

We have to do all of this because we can't make awesome games without an awesome Internet. I can't enjoy fighting games when people are jerks on the Internet, and I love fighting games, so I guess I'm just going to have to fix jerks. "Normal", not-game-playin' folks can distance themselves from the Internet in a way I find most game-playin' folks cannot.

So when I see people in games talking about anger's proper place in a virtual community invested in social justice, I sit back and think, "The lessons we're learning now are the ones that everyone else will be studying 20 years from now." Because over a long enough spectrum, all other communities will be just as inseparable from the Internet, and they'll have to solve the same problems we're working on now.

"The Liberal [games] media"

I use this blog to analyze games writing of all kinds, and I'm often critical. I like to think that my criticism doesn't come from the "Everything is shit" perspective so much as the "Everything could be better" perspective -- which is why I try to keep my criticism constructive. 

One thing that I am inordinately proud of over the last few years of games writing is the way that critical conversations of gender and sexuality (and to a lesser extent race and class, though that still leaves much to be desired) have proliferated -- not just in discursive communities explicitly dedicated to advancing social justice causes, but in consumer-facing, mainstream (for us) publications.

I think it's hilarious that jerks in Reddit comments bemoan the plague of feminism in games writing; clearly, if the main place feminism intrudes upon your privileged life is in writing about video games, it means we're doing something in a mainstream medium that other mainstream media are not doing! We are having a conversation about gender and sexuality that connects to your life in a meaningful and relevant way (video games), and you are reacting to this conversation with defensive hostility and contempt because you cannot ignore it like you can in your everyday life.

Put another way: A man's attitudes toward women and gender typically change not when he starts dating or gets married, but when he has a daughter -- because only at that point is he forced to sit down and consider how much shittier the world is to a woman than to a man. With video games -- both in the games themselves as exercises in empathy, and in the discussion about games -- we are given an opportunity to open that conversation significantly earlier than that. It won't take the first time, or even the fifth, but it will eventually sink in.

Kicking down the barriers to capital

It's kind of crazy to me how quickly the modern indie game dev scene has grown -- and how part of that growth has been connected to our willingness to find other ways to get at the capital necessary for us to build what we want to build.

If I were to decide to start working on a game tomorrow, I would have so many different options for funding it. I could build a prototype in my free time, using off-the-shelf tech and my home PC, and shop it around to a publisher (because publishers now have budgets for indie games!). I could start by getting a team together to mod a commercial game, and if it's successful, use that mod to develop a relationship with the commercial game dev or use it as a proof-of-concept for crowdfunding and publish through Steam Greenlight. I could use an Early Access program to build a highly-invested community early on. And so on, and so on.

Crowdfunding, pay-what-you-want, early access, less-manicured storefronts: All of these are ways of circumventing traditional barriers to capital access (loans and investors). This makes game development more accessible for people who historically have had a hard time finding loans and investors, which gives us games from different locations of situated knowledge, which grows the overall value (financial and creative) of our medium as a whole. And I think that it's great that we're quickly developing paths for people to create and flourish outside of institutionalized mass-production game development relatively early in our medium's history, because I don't want Going Indie to be something you can only do when you're young and reckless or old and established, and I'm hoping that we can preserve and grow that as a viable sector well into video games's maturation.

Film, schmilm

Now let's compare all that to the world of film, where The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is the first movie with a female lead to be the year's #1 film since The Exorcist 40 years ago. Where the Internet, as an independent distribution channel for video, simply hasn't caught on (how many web-exclusive independent shows do you watch?) like it has with games (ironically, most of the successful web shows are about video games, and are taking advantage of new tech like easy live streaming to do even more radical stuff).

We may be a young medium, but relative to our closest cousin, we're coming along pretty nicely. I'm calling it now: 2014-2114 will be a big century for us!

--patrick miller

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