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Games, Adolescence and Culture, Oh My!

In light of Heather Chaplin's GDC rant, I think it's about that time we re-examine the words "game" and "play" since no other entertainment media revolves around these two terms. Doing so might place a different perspective on Ms. Chaplin's claims.

Game: has 24 definitions for the word "game". I chose the first…

"an amusement or pastime: children's games." seems to claim a more efficient means of defining "game" with only 4 definitions. Again, the first is chosen…

"1 a  (1): activity engaged in for diversion or amusement : play  (2): the equipment for a game b: often derisive or mocking jesting : fun  , sport make game of a nervous player"

Google cites first with their set of definitions. Would you believe it? The first of the definitions, yet again…

"a contest with rules to determine a winner; you need four people to play this game

I chose the first definition relevant to our industry (meaning stage performance definitions get the axe).…

"exercise or activity for amusement or recreation." (no example provided)…

"Swordplay" (No joke. It's the first definition)

Google cites again…

"participate in games or sport; We played hockey all afternoon; play cards; Pele played for the Brazilian teams in many important matches

Heather Chaplin's definition…

"common, intellectually impotent, male game developers"

That's not a direct quote but, according to Heather, a bunch of over-the-hill, stunted-adolescent, neotenous frat boys are running around making the world's top-selling games.

She Said He Said
Heather Chaplin's controversial rant at the 2009 Game Developer's Conference has sparked the debate of maturity within the game development community. She even used a recent, new scientific term "neoteny" to describe the psychological process male developers use when creating game content.

Aside from the brilliantly covert insult of calling me developmentally stunted, I'm glad Heather brought this up.

I think this debate is right on time. And it gives me a chance to insult people like Heather in a brilliantly covert fashion, with the word "bluenose".

This debate is large and messy. It often starts with the classic but fundamentally flawed comparison between games and other entertainment media. This blog entry starts and ends on this subject.

There are two elements that make games fundamentally different than any medium before it: Game and Play. They are very old concepts that are being utilized in very new ways. So new are the methods, they are still not fully understood. If they were, Chaplin's comments wouldn't be causing such a fuss.

That's A Baby's Toy
Chaplin asserted the common defense that games are fundamentally an adolescent medium is a straw man. For those with no rural experience, she means it's a cop out. She's essentially saying those who accept this reasoning are those who shoo away progressive concepts to preserve an outdated method like a crotchety old geezer clinging to his ham radio and jug of moonshine. But I would argue this accusation is not against game developers. It's an accusation against society's perception of the term "play".

There are two people smarter than me that can drive my point better. You can watch Stuart Brown and Tim Brown at to hear about some often thought of (but rarely applied) concepts. The point I want to extract from their talks is that our society places an unfair bias on "play".

The first thought most people have when someone says, "We're going to play a game", is that the game will most likely be silly or cause me to operate outside my comfort zone. Most adults are reluctant to act outside their comfort zone. Most adults conclude that children often act outside an adult-like comfort zone. Therefore, "play" is childish. This is the bias we, as an industry, are up against. Case in point: the first definition cited above, the example used for the word "game" is "children’s games".

Game Chauvinist
And what is a "game"? Bundles of colleges around the world teach theories on the term "game". It just so happens our industry has etched its own theories, all of which celebrate the inclusion of its audience. Unfortunately, this type of inclusion is something that's never been done before through an entertainment medium. It's never really been done where the game includes so many participants. It's fair to say we're treading on areas that have never been explored.

But such a vast, expansive industry has to start somewhere, right…insert Chaplin's fancy-pants neoteny quip here. The fact is, those who capitalized on the interactive media the most have been socially "quirky" individuals with an imagination sometimes labeled as adolescent.

I say, so what? It's one of the paths this industry has taken but it's not the whole story and certainly not the whole history. The proof is already there. Mass Effect incorporated a sex scene that is different than other sexual content before it. It was approached with a certain level of…(drum roll)…maturity. Yes, I understand the game's setting might need a little more realistic anchors for it to be considered relatable but, so what. It's a step, it's evolution. And evolution isn't exactly in the "quick to respond" category.

Game Show Must Go On
Every industry has its own culture and stereotypes. What ethnicity do you picture when someone talks about a Hollywood mogul type? What personality do you think of when Wall Street is uttered on the news? We might as well get used to the discrimination we receive because it's good for us to examine, every once in a while, the trends and portrayals we impart on the users and critics around us. How else will we know when we're offending overzealous, bluenose industry researchers?


Matt Allmer

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