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Opinion: Why A Game Designer Outgrew Video Games

As kids grow, they may trade Dr. Seuss for George Orwell, and Nickelodeon for CNN -- but for what can they trade Super Mario Bros.? In this opinion piece, designer Brice Morrison laments the lack of truly mature games -- and examines what "adulthoo

Brice Morrison, Blogger

November 5, 2008

7 Min Read

[As kids grow, they may trade Dr. Seuss for George Orwell, and Nickelodeon for CNN -- but for what can they trade Super Mario Bros.? In this opinion piece, designer Brice Morrison laments the lack of truly mature games -- and examines what "adulthood" for games might look like.] My mother was never interested in games when I was little. Looking up from her newspaper, she would give a soft smile as she saw my brother and I engrossed in Super Mario Brothers before slipping back into her reading. "Mom!" we called. "Come play Mario with us!" We happily tossed her the controller, only to grimace as we watched her plummet poor Mario off a cliff accidentally. "I don’t like these games. You boys have a good time," she would say, handing the controller back to us. With a sigh, my brother and I would take back the controls and continue on. Try as she might, my mother could never get the hang of moving that "tiny man", as she called him, around the screen. To her, games were toys; children’s playthings, a skill not worth investing time in. Games provided no lessons, no useful knowledge, no reward that interested her. They were fine for us, but to her, an intelligent adult, they were a waste of time. Only Entertainment It was only a few years later when I myself began to share my mother’s point of view. I was disappointed to find that as I matured, I was leaving games behind. While my interests in other media grew substantially more adult -- from Nickelodeon to CNN, from Dr. Seuss to George Orwell -- games did not seem to have a more intelligent counterpart for me to move on to. As I entered college, I became less interested in mindless entertainment and more interested in encountering new ideas. I didn’t want to kill time; I wanted to take advantage of it. I wanted to challenge myself with profound concepts, to learn of new paradigms, processes, and possibilities. To fill my growing need for intellectual nourishment, I left games and moved to other media, texts largely influenced by schoolwork. In the search for ideas, books more than satisfied me. Fiction and non-fiction books such as Brave New World and Seven Habits enriched my life and took me places I had never before been. Television and documentary films followed close behind. I was an "infovore", eager to learn all I could about the world I live in. But the games I played appeared to have nothing to say in this discussion of the pragmatic. And so reluctantly I waved goodbye to my entertaining friend in search of deeper art and ideas. As a longtime video game player, I wondered: did it have to be this way? Why were games stuck with a preteen obsession, while other media managed to satisfy different consumers at different stages of life? Books were also capable of pure entertainment, so why was it that the written word was versatile enough to delve deep into the human psyche, while games could only provide simple fun? Surely there was a way to make games with more depth than Super Mario. But if so, where were they? TV Can Do It, Why Can’t I? I began to compare games to other communication forms, and I noticed that some media have hit the big time, so to speak. Television is one. Film is another. Books and magazines yet another. All of these media are universally accepted and not even questioned when we see them expressing the deeper concerns of reality, simply a palette on which artists can create their craft. They are capable of being either pure entertainment or pure intellectual discourse. As a medium, they are free. Games do not have this luxury. To many people, games are only allowed to exist for pure entertainment. Another medium that has succumbed to this sad fate is comic books. Artist Scott McCloud has written (and drawn) extensively about the tragedy of comic books. They, like games, are a medium which has yet to break out of its childish audience. Only a small handful of comics have been able to reach deeper and more intellectual concepts than the slam-bang action of superheroes. Yet McCloud argues that comics as a medium are capable of so much more than children’s fantasies. Themes of romance, biography, satire, or surrealism are not out of their reach. Perhaps comics are not yet down for the count; perhaps they will one day serve more purposes than children’s entertainment. For example, a comic drawn by McCloud himself served as the tutorial for Google’s newest Chrome browser. But for a form of communication that has been around since the 1930’s, comics are a long way from where they would like to be: read by children and adults, men and women, expressing a multitude of themes and ideas. Games As The Baby Brother Games, luckily, are only about 30 years old at best, much younger than comics, and certainly much younger than books. As a medium, they have a lot of time ahead to grow and find their identity. So what exactly are the barriers of entry for great thinkers (or groups of thinkers) to leave their mark on games? What must happen for games -- or interactive entertainment, if you will, to mature as a medium? While no one knows the answer to this question, many people (and companies) have stepped up to the plate to attempt to bring games to the next level. The Nintendo Wii has been a monumental development in the games industry, not because of its innovative technology, not because is has helped get people off of the couch, but because of the way it has changed the audience. My mother, who claimed she could never play games, frequently plays Wii bowling with my aunt. A substantial amount of Wii owners claim that it is their first video game console. This means that, by taking away the buttons that confounded my mother and replacing them with movement-based controls, Nintendo has opened up the possibility that games could be for people other than kids. But Nintendo is not the only one moving the age of gamers up the scale. The ESRB claims that the average gamer is 35 years old, contrary to most anecdotal evidence. As kids (such as myself) who grew up on games turn into adults, the opportunity exists to satisfy their new tastes. Who cares if games are played by an older audience? That doesn’t guarantee that it will become a truly respectable medium. Ian Bogost, professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology, wrote that games will not be truly expected as a medium until there are more boring games. Only when games are mundane enough to be accepted as a method to, say, teach us how to drive safely, will games have truly arrived. While the goal isn’t to create boring games, the goal is to approach a world and a public perception where boring games are not outlandish. So how do we get there? One step at a time. Games like My Weight Loss Coach, or independent titles such as Passage are slowly, one by one, changing the public’s conception of games. As new titles appear that push the envelope of what people, like my mother, think of as games, we approach an environment where emotional and intellectual discourse is possible. So what’s the big deal? Games have a lot of growing to do before they are ready to be heard. But imagine when we arrive: a world where games could teach you how to drive better, how to write better, how to talk with coworkers and friends better. Imagine games that could help you understand life outside of your country, to conceptualize the hardships of the poor. Imagine games that could expand your mind, and make your personal world richer than it as before. Those are games worth seeking out. [Brice Morrison is a game designer who has been developing quirky titles since he was in middle school. Before taking a job at Electronic Arts, he developed several successful independent games such as Jelly Wars, an action adventure franchise, and QuickQuests, a casual MMORPG. While at the University of Virginia, Brice founded Student Game Developers, an organization which continues to produce games every semester and open the doors to the games industry for students. His blog at BriceMorrison.com discusses games in a broader context and how they can be more than simply entertainment.]

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