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Missed Opportunities at NYU's Practice 2015 Conference

NYU's Practice: Game Design in Detail conference is one of the best conferences in the world for those who really want a technical deep dive on understanding interactive systems. But this year's event seemed quick to reject opportunities for progress.

Keith Burgun, Blogger

November 17, 2015

19 Min Read

This weekend, I attended the NYU Practice: Game Design in Detail conference, as I have every year since 2011 when the conference began running. I've written articles on the past events, so if you haven't read those, they are probably a better "foundation" for understanding some basics about the event than this one will be, so I recommend checking them out. (2011, 2012, 2013 I was a speaker, and 2014).

From my perspective, this year's Practice seemed quicker to reject opportunities for progress and instead focused on elementary process reports, gimmicks, and too much self-congratulation.

Like any other editorial journalism, you should of course know that I make this statement coming from a particular point of view. I want progress - both social progress, and progress in the craft of interactive systems design. I look for guidelines on better systems design, as well as conversations that advance our moral and philosophical point of view. I am excited by people saying things and adding to the conversation (especially when I disagree), and I am quickly bored by people repeating rudimentary ideas (which is distinct from pursuing old-but-unanswered questions, which I’ll get to).

In the past, Practice has been always ranged from decent to good in this regard, but this year, something seemed to coalesce.


Practice 2015

The best thing about this year's event was something that's just an intrinsic property of all conferences: the ability to have deep, one-on-one conversations with others in the field. You can make business connections, but perhaps due to the fact that it's run by an academic institution, the focus is really much more on intellectual pursuits than business, and I really like that aspect of it.

I am happy to report that during lunch both days, I sat down and had some of the best possible conversations with some of the smartest people there. It's a rare thing, honestly, to find people who are really interested and prepared to engage with you on ideas. You can kind of tell who these people are at a conference like this, and everyone is approachable. Walk up to someone, yell your claim in their face, and the conversation begins. Over the years, I've been able to do this with people like Jonathan Blow, Dan Cook, Warren Spector and many more, not to mention the completely brilliant staff of the NYU Game Center.

The point is, though, that this only happened, it seemed, when individuals personally chose to make it happen, and that didn't seem to be happening a lot. In personal one-on-one conversations, I felt like we were actually able to make progress on some few topics. But in the actual conference itself, it wasn't like that.

Many of the talks were nothing but "process reports". In other words, "there is no lesson to be extracted from what I did, but here's a big list of the things I did". Several speakers brought out the same "design, playtest, iterate" loop, with only one speaker, Francesco Antolini (designer on Just Cause 3), making any significant modifications to it. Some speakers gave long, wandering talks that said things like "sometimes you want to make objects smaller or larger and play with the size of them" and I heard at least one person say something along the lines of "just use the rule of, is it fun?" I would put Itay Keren’s (Mushroom 11) talk, Erik Svedang’s (Else heart.break()) talk and Marc Ten Bosch (Miegakure)’s talks distinctly into this category, although others roughly fit as well. I had the opportunity to speak to two of these guys personally for serious conversations, and they're super smart, kind, and really cool people. But none of that is what really counts when someone's on stage talking for 45 minutes.

In short, it was a lot of elementary stuff, not too dissimilar to if you asked a first-time developer to go on stage and list what they did. I believe that this is what will tend to happen if you pick speakers based on what they have done rather than what they have to say. Plenty of great designers have nothing to say, and vice versa.

I have no doubt that all of these speakers are smart, passionate people who contribute tremendous value to the world of interactive arts. The problem is, it’s just a fundamentally bad thing to have someone go up on stage and say nothing new. It’s a waste of everyone’s time, and the worst part is that it’s completely avoidable.

People have new things to say. You may have to risk someone saying something that’s wrong, but it’s worth that risk, because that is exactly how progress is made - from someone going out there and boldly proposing an idea.

Beyond those talks, however, there were several opportunities for progress-oriented conversation to emerge.


Ben Ruiz's Aztez


Ben Ruiz's talk was a deep, technical dive into how to make attack animations in brawlers look and feel "satisfying", focused around his game Aztez. Arguably, this was more of an animation / VFX / SFX talk than a game design talk; definitely more along the lines of production than design, but it's close enough. I also really appreciate that of all of the talks, Ben Ruiz actually gave the most non-trivial "advice". He actually did have stuff to say, said it pretty clearly, and seemed to have prepared well for his talk. To be clear: as a talk, his talk was pretty good, and reminded me a bit more of Practices Past.

The issue for me was, we had a situation where a group of fully grown adults were sitting there and watching a bloody head-bash animation over and over and over again. Yes, the art in his game is stylish and abstract, so it's not like looking at ISIS beheading videos or anything, but we are sitting there looking at representations of concepts that aren't all that dissimilar to real mass destruction and killing. We're looking at "the concept of a human getting maimed".


Metroid's secret ending

Metroid's secret ending


To me, that’s something worth exploring. Most of us have realized that despite the fact that Samus is highly abstracted here, the message is clear: women are sex objects and access to their bodies is a reasonable "reward". That message is ugly, and wrong, and we should call it out as such.

Similarly, to me, Ben's game Aztez sends the message that brutal violence is glamorous and fun. His game is far from unique of course - a ton of videogames and movies and TV shows all send that same exact message every day - but the fact is that we're all sitting here staring at this one, watching a head-bludgeoning animation over and over again.

While the game itself sends that message loud and clear, Ben's talk fortified it with the way he was talking about it. He was kind of reveling in the carnage. At one point Ben half-jokingly suggested that people should actually get into real fights to get a better idea of how to simulate the violence in their games, for example.

So perhaps this is all in my perception, and I’m wrong about my view of his talk. Either way, I felt compelled to write a critical tweet, but no one seemed to respond to it. I tweeted a few more times on the subject, but those also went almost entirely ignored. Not rebuked, mind you, but ignored.


Violence, Take Two

During lunch on Saturday, I had a long and fantastic conversation with NYU's Frank Lantz about the violence issue. He started out maybe 50-75% agreeing with my positions, but I think I got him to maybe more like 80-90% by the end of the conversation.

There is a session after lunch called "Feedback Loop", where the moderators (of which Frank is one) take issues that they are hearing people talk about, either in the hallways or on Twitter, and bring them up for a larger, open group discussion.

I was very happy to see Frank bring up the violence issue as a topic for debate, although to be clear, it was not something "people were talking about". *I* was talking about it. He raised it as a topic for discussion. Anyone? I looked around, not really wanting to be the only person interested in this discussion. “Am I really the only one?” I even asked, incredulously. I stood up and explained my point of view on it, that this is not a Jack Thompson "violent videogames turn you into a killer!" argument, in the same way that seeing Sexy Samus doesn't turn you into a rapist.

Maybe I'm wrong about all this - the point itself isn't my point. If I was wrong, I was excited to hear why.

I was sitting next to the videogame journalist Leigh Alexander during this moment, and as I sat back down, she seemed to like what I had said. I specifically told her "I'm really happy that you approve!" My sitting next to her was somewhat strategic, in that I know she has a lot of influence in the social-awareness world, and I would love it if that world to pay some attention to the violence issue as well.

I believe one person (possibly two) responded to my points on violence by kind of just hand waving it away with some broad, unsupported statement that was something like, "I don't think violence is really a problem". Then that was pretty much the end of the discussion, and it went onto other topics.

Practice is one of the most progressive (if not the most progressive) avenues for thinking on game design, so it seems to me that when we’re sitting there watching a bloody head-bash animation over and over again, it’s irresponsible for us not to say something about it.


Other Speakers


A few speakers talks seemed very much "gimmick based", as in, if you remove one singular, small piece of information from the talk, it would be confusing to people why that person was on the stage. For instance, we had Leslie Scott, who interestingly (at least, for a moment) was the inventor of Jenga. She gave yet another "process report" for the "design" of Jenga. Of course, I put the word "design" in quotes, because there is very little design work that needed to be done for Jenga. Essentially after coming up with the basic concept, she just needed to make a few simple refinements, and it was done. When I say "simple refinements", I mean it, too. She had a slide dedicated to how the first blocks she used were too long, so that they "stuck out" a little on the sides, so she had to trim them down to better proportions. This is what I mean by the kind of thing that we really just don't need to hear about. There's no other way to say it but to say that this is just really obvious stuff.

She mentioned that she'd be talking about a design failure, which interested me. Unfortunately, it turned out that her "design failure" was actually that she had made a great game but that due to some legal technicalities she couldn't release it (someone else had already used the game's title).

Overall, this was the classic "we got you for what you did, not what you have to say" talk. If Leslie hadn't invented Jenga, there's no way we'd have asked her to come on stage and give the talk she gave. The fact that she was a speaker feels like a gimmick, so that we can just say "hey, we saw a talk by the inventor of Jenga".

Then there were three or four speakers whose talks were essentially very similar - a somewhat rudimentary laying out of the process that they went through in order to make their thing. I heard a lot of very vague terms like "fun" and "things people like". Elementary design lessons, such as the classic "design, playtest, iterate" loop came out on a slide for at least four different speakers.

If you were to teach a random 18 year old to use Unity, and then give them six months to make a game, and then threw them on stage and said "now talk about your design process", you would get talks like many of the talks I heard this weekend. These did not feel like "experts". They did not feel like people who were on the cutting edge of design philosophy.

And I'm not being "strategy game centric", here. There was exactly zero "strategy game" representation at this conference, which is itself kind of bad, but that's not my issue. I would love to have had some deep progressive insights on any kinds of interactive systems.

For example, you might think that Brian Moriarty would have something to say on the topic of interactive fiction - especially because he seems to be a very intelligent guy and further because he started off his talk with a clip of Siskel and Ebert talking about how interactive fiction can never work. It was really set up for an actual statement to be made.

Unfortunately, I don't think the statement ever came. We were all subjected to basically the full "tree" of possibilities from some incredibly obscure "choose your own adventure film" made in the 1950s. It was completely awful, of course, and the awfulness was a little funny for sure, but we were watching it for a good 25-30 minutes at least.

Perhaps this is my bias coming through, but if there was any point being made here, it was that Siskel and Ebert's point was correct. He started off with a reel of those two saying that it can't work, and then showed us some examples of it not working. Perhaps in the IF circle, it's such a given that it can work that they wouldn't draw the conclusion I drew. But for me it was just very strange, because I don't think that Brian would ever intend to send that message.

My favorite speaker was Jesse Fuchs of the NYU Game Center. Practice has an event called "Open Problems", where people from the crowd come out and give a one minute explanation of a game design challenge they're struggling with, and people from the audience yell out some suggestions. In the first Practice "custom", established because Jesse's first "open problem" in 2011 turned out to be a brilliant rapid-fire talk on Monopoly, every year Jesse does a "surprise" five to ten minute talk at the end of this section.

His talk was great - it was short, to the point, and above all, it had a point. He was talking about addiction in games - something which is very close to my heart, both intellectually and personally - and how perhaps a good metric for identifying "addictive games" is whether the business model depends on people getting seriously addicted (so-called "whales"). It did what talks should do: present ideas and present them efficiently and clearly.

I wish his talk could have been longer and he could have engaged in a QA discussion, but that didn't happen either. It was just this quick, ten-minute thing which then kind of vanished into the ether. I was starting to observe a pattern.


Closing Statement

Usually at the end of a conference, a speaker is chosen to kind of run people through some of the highlights of the conference, make some jokes about it, and generally "sum-up" what took place here. This year, the chosen speaker was the aforementioned Leigh Alexander, who you may be aware of, as she used to write for Gamasutra, and in fact covered this event for GS in previous years (she now writes for Offworld.com).

I'm generally a fan of the work that Leigh has been pursuing. She seemed to agree with my speaking out about the violence issue, which made me really look forward to her talk all the more. I thought for sure that if anyone was going to say something at this event, it would likely be her.

She started off her talk with a farcical, sarcastic set of questions like "what is a game, really?" "Isn't it about meaningful decisions?" "What is it that gives a player a sense of agency?" and perhaps about a dozen other questions along those lines. The implicit joke was that it is of course foolish to ask these questions. Of course these questions will never get answered, and they are beside the point anyway (what "the point" actually is was not, sadly, revealed).

That disappointed me, actually, because I think those, when coupled with clear, nuanced explanations, are exactly the kinds of questions that need to be asked. No explanation for the rejection of such questions was given, but since many in the audience were laughing along, I have to assume that it was just based on the fact that these questions are old and yet still not solved.

Many people believe that because we've been searching for answers to questions about "what makes a decision meaningful" or "what is a game" for a very long time and still haven't found it, then that means we'll never find it, or that the answers don't exist. Some also believe that it's because the conversation frequently breaks down and becomes not-useful, that it therefore must always be not-useful.

And maybe those people are right! But if you want to convince those of us who are pursuing those answers, like myself, to believe you, then you actually have to do the convincing. You can even use satire in the process, but the satire must contain convincing arguments. It can't just be a "wow, you SERIOUSLY THINK THAT?" anti-joke that asks the audience to imagine your joke's premise for you.

I hate this philosophy that you can go out there and make the claim that it's stupid to make claims. That itself is a claim!

So essentially the beginning of the talk felt a bit like waving a big white flag on the pursuit of formal understanding of interactive systems, which is precisely the thing that I am interested in. Naturally, I was disappointed about that, and even more disappointed that so many in the audience seemed to be excited by this proposition.

The talk went over great, getting a standing ovation, but it struck me as just strange and somewhat out of place. I left disappointed by her talk, and by the event in general.


The Real Point of Practice 2015

It wasn't until I started the second draft of this article that I realized that actually, Leigh's talk was not at all out of place. It was actually exactly the perfect ending - the climax, really - to that conference.

Up until the end I was hoping that it would be something that it wasn't: a constructive, progress-oriented discussion. Instead, it was kind of a direct rejection of the very premise of a constructive, progress-oriented discussion. It was, to a large extent, a great big claim that you can't make claims.

I suspect that there's some feeling that now that we - the socially liberal/feminist movement - have really won a huge cultural battle with regards to the portrayals of women in games, now we can, to some extent, rest on our laurels and kinda self-congratulate. I don't think anyone would consciously think that, of course, but I do think that that's a phenomenon that could happen given the circumstances.

There was one question that came up in an open discussion about what it means for something to be "true or false" in game design. My answer was, a guideline is true to the extent that it works; basically it's exactly like the scientific method, it's just a much softer science - much more like philosophy than chemistry. But there was actually a lot of resistance to this idea.

I think the combination of post-modern-ish "giving up on finding answers" / mystery-glorification, the romance for nonsense, combined with a bit of victory-lapping on the part of social progressives, caused there to be an intellectual void where thoughts would normally be.

Of course, we should never stop pushing on to the next frontiers. There are answers, and we can find them. We can, and will discover better moral truths. I believe violence glorification, cultivation of addiction, whether interactive fiction is a worthwhile pursuit, what a game is, what gives players a feeling of agency - I believe all of these questions have answers. When we design something, we are forced to make decisions about those things and come up with tentative answers, and I think that progress will allow us to come up with better and better tentative answers as time goes on.

Overall, I felt like we had a room full of smart people, and if you prompted them to explore a topic and come out with a position, they would, but something about the conference itself didn’t bring out that spirit, for whatever reason.

Eric Zimmerman, one of the event organizers who teaches at NYU, said that criticism is the highest form of respect. Indeed, I have massive respect for the event, which is why I'm bringing all this up. It's good that we're supportive of each other, but I wonder if it's really "supportive" to just accept and praise everything.

I'm reminded of speakers of past years, speakers like Jonathan Blow, David Sirlin and others who actually took a stance on something. Maybe it's just a matter of leaving it less "up to chance" that we'll get things like that.

Events like Practice should be a place for a maximum speed sprint in the direction of progress. We don't all have to be running in the same direction, we can disagree, we can fight, and if no progress is made because no one can agree, that's one thing. But when we go home, we all have to actually make design calls and other creative choices. I'm hoping next year's Practice will give us a little more to think about.

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