An Analytical Discussion of the Industry, Culture, Progress and Nature of Video Games.

June 2, 2006
"Dynamism and Gaming"
"Grant McCracken Should Play More Games"

First off, I’d like to offer my sincere condolences to Aaron, who blatantly had his idea robbed from him by those insidious thieves at Bio Ware. Aaron, are you feeling like the Alfred Russel Wallace of gaming?
Seriously though, I agree with you that the conversation system sounds inventive and much more interesting that the classic dialogue trees that were popular in adventure gaming. I’m excited because for the first time, there’s actually a reason for a hyper-attention to detail and eye animation. Usually, when developers offer features like animated mascots in Madden, or “real beads of sweat” on NBA players, I couldn’t care less. But Mass Effect, where facial expressions and reading emotion based on careful animation is key to gameplay, then I start to have hope for increased processing power being good for something more than keeping track of where I shot my name into a wall.

But the real purpose of my post today was to continue on something that I wrote last week: Creativity. Or, as Grant McCracken might call it in its more grand sense: Dynamism. For those of you not familiar with Grant McCracken, he’s an anthropology professor at University of Chicago and is concerned with contemporary consumer culture, design, and branding. He is also the author of a couple of books, one of which I read in school and largely consider it to be one of the most influential books I’ve read in anthropology. But most importantly in this arena, Grant McCracken has a blog.
I usually read Grant’s blog (yeah. we’re on a first name basis. he just doesn’t know it.) for an insight in consumer practices and corporate marketing strategies. He offers a space to comment, but most times I just click away when I’m done. Who am I to wax anthropological about consumer culture?
But on May 17th he wrote about video games. And he did so in a poor manner.
My comment starts now:
His article makes two arguments, which I will deal with in reverse.
1. The tools historically used in the development of video games (and, in his argument, animation and video production) have largely been the domain of a select few. Nowadays, however, there are more and more tools being developed that pull the curtain away from game design, giving the mass population the ability to create. And create unfettered without having to learn C++ (or, in the case of this website, html).
2. The select few that controlled the development tools of the past were, for lack of a better term, nerds. And when nerds are left to their own devices, they make what nerds want to make. Namely, ultra-macho heroes, butt-ugly monsters with tentacles and scales, buxom damsels in distress, and rocketships. Halo is his example. Now, with the ability for everyone to be creative – not just nerds – Grant believes that true artists will enter videogame design and improve the artistic qualities of gaming.

I would like to remind Grant that Halo (which he gives as an example of poor character and art design), and its sequels, are less than two years old. And they did, in fact, employ artists to design and create the worlds, heroes, and enemies. Sorry Grant, but the artists are there, and this is what they created. Not programmer nerds in their basement, but honest-to-god artists. I’m sorry that Grant doesn’t appreciate the hard work, but Microsoft artists clearly succeeded in creating a hero that embodied cool and an enemy to truly abhor. They wanted to make a game that pandered to the middle-schooler present in all males, and they succeeded. Is Halo representative of gaming as a whole? Of course not. Curiously, he cites Myst as being the only aesthetically pleasing game he can think of. A game that came out in 1993? So, if Dynamism is entering design as time moves on, then why is a game in 1993 a better demonstration than a game made in 2004?
I would suggest that Grant look at other video games before claiming that the whole industry is controlled by misogynistic nerds recreating the fantasies scrawled on the back of their 8th grade notebook. Look at games like Grim Fandango, N64-era Zelda, Ico, Shadow of Colossus, Final Fantasy (pick a good one), and Resident Evil and you must admit that an attention to aesthetics, does, in fact, exist in video games. Grant just happened to pick the one game that happens to look like a 13-year-old-who-subscribes-to-Soldier-of-Fortune-magazine’s wet dream: Halo. Looking at all of video gaming, Grant would see that, like art as a whole, there are good games, and there are nerdy games. Dynamism isn’t affecting aesthetics in gaming; the aesthetics have been there all along.

Then what is Dynamism doing? I’ll agree with Grant that it does exist, but what is being created from an opportunity for creative people to do what they want without having to deal with the minutiae of computer programming? Games like Indiana Jones and the Fountain of Youth, is one wonderful example of Dynamism at work. Inspired by the point-and-click adventure games of the mid-90s, and following the art direction and character design in Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis, a small group of artistically gifted game enthusiasts have created a brand-new and excellent gaming experience. And it was built through simple Photoshop techniques and a program called Adventure Game Studio, which provides the architecture for the game development. Of course, the shell of AGS can only get you so far. Individual creative minds have to develop the story and do their own artwork.

And that is what Dynamism is going to accomplish: Not ridding the gaming realm of bad aesthetics (just look at other AGS examples), but give the rest of the world an opportunity to engage in the creation of aesthetics – be they based on a doodle of a gun or not.

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