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The Developer's Duty

Kim draws some parallels between Chris Hecker's recent MIGS keynote and Edward R Murrow's 1958 speech on the responsibility of those bringing Television content to market.
[Cross-posted from my blog here]
I attended both the IGDA Leadership Summit and the Montreal International Game Summit recently, and both conferences were punctuated by keynotes given by Chris Hecker. The keynotes were different, but related. Summaries are covered here and here.

One of the main points of both keynotes was that games are at a crossroads, and that whether they end up as a respected medium of entertainment and artistic expression, or get relegated to a 'cultural ghetto', or worse, get regarded as 'just toys'. Jason captured this slide on that point:

Chris also made the point that the industry was moving from questions of HOW (e.g. "How do I put 100 characters in a scene?") to questions of WHY ("Why do I want to put 100 characters in my scene? What am I trying to say by doing so?" etc)

His call to action was that developers should all ask themselves, during the course of their development, two questions:
- "What am I trying to say, and why?"
- "Am I saying it with interactivity?"

It/they were brilliant and provocative keynotes. Chris' big picture thinking always impresses me.

Yesterday, I watched Good Night and Good Luck, the story of Edward R Murrow's attempt to take a stand against Senator Joe McCarthy's communist witchhunt and circumventing of due process, etc.

The film begin and ends with Murrow's speech to the Radio and Television News Directors Association convention in 1958. The transcript of the speech is well worth reading (the film only provides the beginning and ending).

There's a passage toward the end that Murrow directed toward television, but I think applies equally to games and is in keeping with the ideas conveyed in Chris' speech. Given the sentiment of Murrow's speech, that the medium has a responsibility to *try* to do more - that those that develop and fund content have a duty to do so - I have to think he'd be OK with our applying his words to games in the same way:

We are currently wealthy, fat, comfortable and complacent. We have currently a built-in allergy to unpleasant or disturbing information. Our mass media reflect this. But unless we get up off our fat surpluses and recognize that television in the main is being used to distract, delude, amuse and insulate us, then television and those who finance it, those who look at it and those who work at it, may see a totally different picture too late.[1]
I do not advocate that we turn television into a 27-inch wailing wall, where longhairs constantly moan about the state of our culture and our defense. But I would just like to see it reflect occasionally the hard, unyielding realities of the world in which we live. I would like to see it done inside the existing framework, and I would like to see the doing of it redound to the credit of those who finance and program it. Measure the results by Nielsen, Trendex or Silex-it doesn't matter. The main thing is to try[2]. The responsibility can be easily placed, in spite of all the mouthings about giving the public what it wants. It rests on big business, and on big television, and it rests at the top. Responsibility is not something that can be assigned or delegated. And it promises its own reward: good business and good television.[3]
Perhaps no one will do anything about it. I have ventured to outline it against a background of criticism that may have been too harsh only because I could think of nothing better. Someone once said--I think it was Max Eastman--that "that publisher serves his advertiser best who best serves his readers." I cannot believe that radio and television, or the corporation that finance the programs, are serving well or truly their viewers or listeners, or themselves.[4]
I began by saying that our history will be what we make it. If we go on as we are, then history will take its revenge, and retribution will not limp in catching up with us.[1]
We are to a large extent an imitative society. If one or two or three corporations would undertake to devote just a small traction of their advertising appropriation along the lines that I have suggested, the procedure would grow by contagion; the economic burden would be bearable, and there might ensue a most exciting adventure--exposure to ideas and the bringing of reality into the homes of the nation.
To those who say people wouldn't look; they wouldn't be interested; they're too complacent, indifferent and insulated, I can only reply: There is, in one reporter's opinion, considerable evidence against that contention. But even if they are right, what have they got to lose? Because if they are right, and this instrument is good for nothing but to entertain, amuse and insulate, then the tube is flickering now and we will soon see that the whole struggle is lost.
This instrument can teach, it can illuminate; yes, and it can even inspire. But it can do so only to the extent that humans are determined to use it to those ends. Otherwise it is merely wires and lights in a box.[5] 


Parallel's with Chris' talk:
  1. Art vs Pop-culture ghetto
  2. The important thing is that we all try
  3. Indies can't do all the heavy lifting. Big Games needs to pitch in too.
  4. "Cotton Candy for Dinner"
  5. It's ours to fuck up, and we CAN fuck it up.
I thought the parallels quite electrifying. I don't know whether to find encouragement in it though. The struggle Murrow spoke of 50 years ago continues today, and a few minutes watching Fox news makes a case that we are losing ground if anything.

That a struggle does continue though, is good. Hopefully games can fare as well, or better. So long as developers (and publishers, and the rest of us on the periphery) consider it their duty to try, then maybe we will do better.

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