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'Everybody loves to play': GDC microtalks 2016

"Everybody loves to play" was the theme of this year's GDC Microtalks, which featured top-tier speakers who had a lot to say in a little amount of time.

Simon Parkin, Contributor

March 18, 2016

7 Min Read

Nine speakers took to the stage for the GDC Microtalks 2016, one of the most popular sessions at the event each year, which are hosted by Richard Lemarchand, former designer on the Uncharted series and current lecturer at the University of Southern California. The Microtalks format is simple and well-established: every speaker gets 20 slides, every one of which is displayed for exactly 16 seconds before automatically advancing, giving each speaker five minutes and 20 seconds to get their ideas off their chest.

Lemarchand began by setting the context for the talks’ over-arching theme this year: "Everybody loves to play." “The international, political climate is oscillating between reactionary and revolutionary both within and without of games,” he said. “Markets of the games industry go through cycles of boom and bust, but we are finding new audiences all the time.”

Bennett Foddy, designer of the games QWOP and GIRP and lecturer at NYU, was first to take to the stage. He encouraged game designers to explore the potential of science of vision in games. “We could do a lot more to use the science of illusions, not just visually but also as game mechanics,” said Foddy. “Optical effects exploit biological effects about how we see. We can use optical illusion to make non-existent things visible.” Foddy suggested using motion sickness as a stimulus in VR games. “Use it to punish bad play, or as an emotional prompt,” he said. “Optical effects are not only useful for inducing sickness and anxiety,” he added. “It be used to calm and relax, and even control a player’s breathing.”

Aleissia Laidacker, AI programmer from Ubisoft Montreal, who mentors girls pursuing vocations in games and tech was next to the podium. She encouraged programmers to ensure that they keep playing games, even while making them.

“The best programmers are also great designers,” she said. “We need to understand why are we developing systems, not only how we design them.” It’s an exciting time to be a programmer, Laidacker claimed, as the technological advance of hardware and tools has reached a point where we are able to focus on what we can do with the tech and new ways to play.

“I know so many programmers who don’t enjoy playing,” she said. “They focus on the ‘how’, and not the ‘what’ or ‘why’. But the best programmers I know are ones who love to play. Push your teams in new directions and you’ll discover new ways to play and make better games for everyone.”

Brian Allgeier from Insomniac Games disagreed with the assertion that 'everyone likes to play.' “There are some mentalities we can slip into that are-anti play,” he said. “We need to learn to recognize and change these attitudes.” Allgeier described three "ghouls," mentalities that discourage playfulness: "The Task Master," who sees play as a waste of time and a distraction; "The Plan Prisoner," which prevents a person from embracing the unknown and discovering new avenues, and "Silent Abe," a reference to Abraham Lincoln’s maxim that it’s better to remain silent and be thought a fool rather than speak up and remove all doubt.

“It’s important to create an atmosphere of trust where people are comfortable to share even the ‘dumbest’ ideas, as these often lead to interesting places,” said Allgeier. “We must ward off these ghosts of anti-play. We like to think play is part of our DNA, but it’s actually easily ignored. Play must be cultivated as individuals. If we don’t, how are we expected to give others the gift of play?”

Christina Norman, lead designer at Riot Games agreed that playfulness is instrumental in feeding game-makers’ imaginations. “Game designers learn through play, so what we play is as important as how we play,” she said. For Norman, it’s key to embrace play-styles from different cultures.

“At a previous GDC I talked about how Mass Effect’s shooter mechanics were partly influenced by the Japanese RPG Secret of Mana,” she said. “Japan has been a huge influence on me, and on hundreds of other designers. But Japan is only one country."

Norman explained that she draws great influence from the Korean makers of mobile MMOs.  “If we want to learn from online games we need to play them now; online games are transient, and once they’re taken offline they are often completely lost.” Maximizing learning from global games requires a watchful eye, Norman said. “The gaming landscape is changing faster than ever before.”

Mathew Kumar, CEO of MK-ULTRA Games, talked about how the need that game designers have to tightly control the player’s journey through their idea can, at times, stifle playfulness. He gave the example of a time he visited the Brooklyn Bridge park in New York, when it hosted Danish artist Jeppe Hein’s installation, Please Touch the Art.

Kumar described the installation as a scavenger hunt for colorful, creative park benches. “As a game design project, it’s interesting,” he said. The 16 benches were scattered across the park, seemingly without much through to placement. Viewers might encounter the benches in a random order, and yet there was a certain liberating feeling from the design. “There can be a stuffy feel on being on a path constrained by a designer," he said.

Henrike Lode from Copenhagen-based Lohika stated that she wants to “make games for everyone”. Lode talked about how, whenever she goes to game jams, she finds that people typically want to make joke games on well-established themes and genres. Lode proceeded to list the games that she wants to make that nobody will make with her, which she believes demonstrate how play can be for everyone. Among her ideas were a Grand Theft Auto mod when you play as a sex worker and feel the fear of getting into a stranger’s car; a version of The Sims in which women menstruate and have to clean it up and “feel embarrassed about it or not, depending on their personalities," and a VR game about the final moments of her break-up with her ex-boyfriend.

“I want to make games for everybody because everybody has the right to play,” said Lode.

Robert Yang, independent game-maker then spoke about the resistance he has encountered in making his boutique sex games in a talk titled, ‘The game industry needs to get laid and just chill already.’

“My sex games are often about how sex is not sexy,” he said. Nonetheless, his games have been banned by both PayPal, Twitch and Vineo, in some cases without providing an explanation for the decision. Twitch banned Yang’s shower game, he said, but did not ban The Witcher 3, which features scores of sex scenes with naked women. Nor did Twitch ban South Park: Stick of Truth, which features, among other sexual content, a battle with a pair of giant testicles.

“If I was being cynical I might say that these companies won’t ban games from major publishers. Yang concluded: “If games want to be the most powerful industry in the world, then please don’t ban games just because they are about sex.”

Jenn Frank, assistant editor at Paste Games read a brief and personal piece about her decision to move back to California with her husband, the game-maker Ted Dinola, set against a series of seemingly only tangentially related slides, about how to be a successful game developer.

Finally, Steve Gaynor, founder of The Fullbright Company and a former designer on the BioShock series, spoke movingly about the people who gave him his first shot in the industry, taking a risk on him which provided him with the experience and learning he needed to go on to become a success.

Gaynor went on to say that, in the games industry, top roles are often occupied by men because “we are the ones who have been given the best chances.” In order to bring diversity and new perspectives to the industry, which will further grow the audience for games, we need to change and improve the industry one hire at a time, he said.

“This is the only way to change the self-perpetuating cycles of the industry and bring new voices and perspectives into the process.”

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About the Author(s)

Simon Parkin


Simon Parkin is a freelance writer and journalist from England. He primarily writes about video games, the people who make them and the weird stories that happen in and around them for a variety of specialist and mainstream outlets including The Guardian and the New Yorker.

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