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A Case Study in how Revolutionaries become The Man

The game industry was started by rebels and rejects. This is easy to forget.

(Originally posted here

Here's what this covers: 

  1. Game development in the early 1990s 
  2. The rise of consoles 
  3. The creation of feeder schools
  4. Rebellion 

Pardon the broad sweep.

A starting point for perspective
My mental model of game developers stems from the relatively early days of game development.  No one understood what games were.  The predominant people making games were fringe dreamers. I started making games in our awkward adolescence.  Quake still wasn't out. Nor was the Sims. Nor was Ultima Online. There was no Xbox, no PlayStation, no casual games. Or for that matter, hardcore games. The term 'gamer' didn't exist. The web didn't exist. 

My heroes all pretty much had the origin story of 'crazy person with a dream made a game'.  Peter Molyneux was a madhatter inventing entire genres like Populous.  Tim Sweeney was making weird user generated content experiments with bad art.  Dani Bunten created this thing called 'online multiplayer gaming'. Will Wright was trying to build an esoteric working model of Gaia with Sim Earth. 

Consoles existed, but they were one piece of gaming pie that included a strong legacy of PC, C64, Atari and Amiga. Strange as it may seem nowadays, people still made original games in the UK. 

No one really knew what they were talking about.  Everyone was alone. The fan press didn't really talk about game development much.  We made games because the urge to put some sort of mark on the world boiled within.  I remember discussing with a very talented, very introverted fellow how he had spent his teens programming games for years in near total isolation. Literally in a room with the door closed and marginal human interaction for years. He could however talk to his one friend about games. It became an outlet, a connection, a hobby where he could shine. And that was a good thing. Because he couldn't talk about loving computers, being intensely shy or his parents' crumbling marriage. Or the darker things that I have no right to talk about. 

The game industry was started by the misfits of society.  You were some odd creature that loved art, tech, and expression and you created games because what else were you going to do with your life?  So many folks I talked with from those days would laugh and say "Well, I'm unfit for any other job." 

A key idea is that making games was 95% intrinsic motivation.  There was little culture telling us games were good.  There was no career. There was no 1950s path of school, job, love, and kids. That mid-80s Far Side about a kid getting a job making games was funny in part because no one believed that such a job could ever exist.  The date Larson lists for the clownishly impossible future? 2005. 

Games as big business and as culture
Over the next decade, there was a slow shift with the PlayStation and later the Xbox where games became big business.  The industry as measured by pointy headed suits was worth billions. 

There had been marketing of various types for years.  Nintendo and Sega had substantial campaigns targeting kids.  There's usually a 10-year old child playing a Nintendo game with cheesy special effects.  Sony and Xbox increased the volume of marketing and moved the age bracket higher.  These campaigns fed kids a commercial message; "Games are awesome."

Those kids grew up.  And they wanted to make games like the ones that so influenced their childhood.  I remember the first time I met someone who wanted to make games because he really enjoyed 2D shooters on his Turbografx 16.  It didn't really compute with me at the time.  This wasn't someone who saw games as the only possible outlet for his odd misfit skills.  This was someone who wanted to ride a cultural wave and be part of what they saw as mainstream society. 

That's a big shift.  It is a generational shift. 

The Age of Consoles
At a certain point, around the early 2000s, we started to see institutions solidifying around the game industry.  Most games were console games.  The fan press fed players carefully vetted previews and other propaganda about what to buy.  Players stopped off at GameStop and bought the latest AAA title.  The factory hummed. 

It was a bit of a monoculture. An enforced monoculture.  A lot of the misfit game developers were weeded out, sidelined or converted into suits.  People may ask "what has Peter Molyneux done for me lately?" or "Will Wright is washed up because Spore failed."  I see instead talented people trapped in corporate ecosystems streamlined for production efficiency.  Messy entrepreneurial madness, the defining attribute of early game developers, became an infection to be suppressed. 

The tone of conversation changed.  A propaganda-led monoculture clarifies a sense of identity for something that was previously organic and diffuse.  Being a 'gamer' became a thing and a positive feedback cycle was kicked off.  Players, with the honesty of a innocent child raised in a cult, proudly declared their affiliation.  Clever companies marketed and magnified that affiliation back.  If you grew up during this time, the commercial aspects of your gaming childhood are pretty much a cultural circle jerk.  Not that it was any less pleasurable or meaningful. 

I mostly left the game industry around this time. I still loved games, but by then there were other places a technical and artistic misfit could go.  From afar, I watched the transformation of our naive game developer ideals into something sleeker with a tingling sense of horror. 

An aside
I still kept thinking about games over at  A handful of early developers had gone beyond just making games to trying to figure out what made them tick at a psychological level. Everyone starts out naively creating, but you start to see unexpected connections after making a dozen games over a dozen years. Chris Crawford led the pack. Raph Koster jumped in. Nicole Lazzaro actually watched real players (and took notes.)  Such a wonderful problem!  So many things to think about and invent! I get all bubbly just writing about it.

No one paid much attention.  Each of these writers was still a misfit. They weren't particularly photogenic or marketable.  They were often labeled past their prime. But they continued writing, mostly in isolation, mostly rejected and ignored by society.  Because that feeling wasn't exactly a new thing.

Feeder Schools
Anyway, back to the grind of history. Where do you get production workers for your well oiled game making factory?

You make them from 18-22 year old gamers that want to keep riding that cultural wave.  Early on, companies started forming partnerships with schools to train new workers.  Working conditions at the retail game factories were horrendous. Weak management, long hours and poor pay.  Massive numbers of developers fled.  (See EA Spouse and quality of life surveys) 

However, those eager 'gamers' didn't know any of this.  And their faceted eyes sparkled with the thought of being part of the corporate priesthood that defined so much of their precious personal identity.  

  1. Take their money
  2. Put them in a room with a teacher that rarely (if ever) releases games. 
  3. Teach them some tools.  
  4. Give their name to a corporate recruiter.  Near 100% placement. 
  5. 50-80% fail within 5 years and are left loaded with debt, non-transferable skills and the lifelong scars of broken dreams.  

Repeat the process. "That's what I like about these high school gamers; I get older, they stay the same age."

Not all game development schools were like this.  Just the majority. Yes, there are good teachers.  Yes, there are handful of good programs. Some programs eventually branched out beyond straight production.  Film studies departments started game programs.  HCI departments began including game courses.  In part because this is where culture and technology was headed.  In part because excited young students that love games are giant bags of money.  "Oh, you want to study games?  We can make that happen."

I still find such places a little awkward and embarrassing.  I think it is better than nothing?  Though there is a cost. 

The institutionalization of game design dogma
What do you teach these eager students?  Most of the best game designers I know weren't taught.  They stumbled forward over a decade or more of personal experimentation towards a set of fuzzy tools and instincts that let them make decent games.  

There's no path.  No proven plan. Damned misfits inventing industries and artistic forms from scratch.  Barbaric. 

But right there on the course schedule. It says "Game Design 101".  These kids are spending $30k a year and you've got 2 years to make them hire-able. 

Imagine you are the harried teacher. You stumble upon the writings of the game designers on the internet.  Ooh, this guy Koster wrote a book that people seem to like. Hey, Dan Cook had an essay on mechanics that got some comments. Maybe you include some essays or textbooks written by folks in academia that dabble in games and know how to play the textbook selling game. Voila!  A reading list. 

In case you are curious, the actual authors of this material are still figuring stuff is all distinctly 'wet'. But whenever someone writes me asking if they can use an essay in a class, I say "Sure!"  I have this idealistic notion that students will talk about the ideas in detail, form some mental models, disagree with some pieces and then one day contribute their own thoughts to this weird little intellectual project. Implant the eggs. 

That isn't really what happens as far as I can tell.  Instead, the student reads some random essay on "What is a game" in an introductory class and it turns into this authoritative work of dogmatic definition.  They are tested.  The system does not distinguish bad studies vs different perspectives. Both earn poor grades. I saw a test question asking a student define 'what is a game mechanic' and I cringed a little.  I don't think I could answer that correctly.

All this happens on a tight schedule with little time for variance. Everyone needs to get to 3D Modeling 210 at 3pm.  Despite the best intentions of everyone involved, tens of thousands of new workers must be birthed with minimal muss.  

Is it any wonder that a handful of the students poured through this system rebel?  They are the spiders in our bellies. 

Here we are in 2013. Once again, it is a new world. We've got new opportunities.  If you love games, you don't need to join EA to make them.  Pick up Flash or Game Maker or RPG Maker or Twine.  Grow into something wonderful.  Create something personal.  Put some sort of mark on the world. 

Smart young game developers see these breaks in the monoculture and they jump off the conveyor leading them into the maw of the AAA console-centric industry. 

In the often emotionally violent process of finding their own path, they reject the standard, institutional dogma. How does it feel refactoring your dreams? Pretty damned confusing. The easy, natural solution to cognitive dissonance is polarization.  Are you black or white?

Raph Koster, and Chris Crawford become The Man. Every single test in school.  Every single critical comment that incompetently referenced analytical concepts.  Every rejection because the thing you do doesn't fit the status quo. These are all labeled as tools of repression and control.  Through multiple steps and multiple contexts, the creative and intellectual works of isolated dreamers are transformed into symbols of power. 

The years will only multiply the angry cries.  So many bodies bursting forth. 

A generation is twenty years
I figure it has taken me 15 years of deep study to go from rote replication of games to some sort of journeyman level mastery of the topic.  Maybe in another 5 years of learning and 10 more substantial games, I'll be at a place where I might be comfortable teaching someone about Games 101.  I'm still not ready.

A student has a window of experience.  It stretches back to your first game played. It stretches back to the first game you made.  It stretches back to your first failure.  Your first rejection.  What is the window that defines you?

We are blind to history.  It is not something we can feel or touch or experience because we did not live it.  Instead history becomes an oppressive wall of 'what has always been.'   There have always been gamers.  There have always been consoles.  There have always been schools that teach game design. There have always been authoritative definitions of what games are allowed.

There is one reaction to this wall. Tear it down. Gorge on the pieces. Make something anew. Devote your lifetime to this holy endeavor. 

In 5 years, I will be well into my second generation of game development. My revolution does not yet feel over. Yet, I am now an old white man in a position of power. My life is for the most part a broken work in progress whose time is running short. Yet I get up each morning, make games and write essays about how they tick. Who is this all for?

All this leads to one final thought
Dear young game developers of the world. Eat me. 

(I'll let you unpack that on your own.)

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