The Costly Stakes of Videogame Literacy
by Tanner Higgin — University of California, Riverside
September 28, 2011 – 02:06
I had the opportunity to visit the University of Southern California’s Game Innovation Lab (GIL) last August. Directed by Tracy Fullerton, GIL is a significant component of the now vibrant indie game development scene. GIL is largely responsible for proving that academic game development can gestate innovative and relevant design that escapes the ivory tower and affects the actual consumer driven industry. This impact is evident in the groundbreaking work of GIL students. The first breakthrough was perhaps Cloud, whose creators have gone on to make flOw, Flower, and the forthcoming Journey. While meeting with less consumer success, the oft-referenced Darfur is Dying was a critical success that has served as a touchstone for those interested in creating, for better or worse, “serious games.” The most recent GIL success, however, is a gorgeous and brilliant faculty project, The Cat and the Coup. The lab’s track record of success is unmatched within academia, but its influence goes beyond awards, downloads, or media buzz. What makes GIL stand out is its dedication to conceptually and critically astute games which boldly challenge the constrictive and often counterproductive conventions of gaming. As Fullerton remarked during my visit, GIL’s mission is to not just design good games, but test and expand the boundaries of games. They take pleasure in poking and prodding at coherent or stable definitions of videogames until they burst. It’s wonderful work, really.
The Cat and the Coup
An excellent representative of this philosophy is Walden, a project currently in development. Rather than simulate all-to-common videogamey feelings of exhilaration or horror, Walden expands the emotional spectrum of play to moments of calm reflection. You, playing as a Thoreau-like hermit, are invited to be patient and contemplative, moades of play brought on by the self-sustaining tasks of wilderness life you perform. Building on the methodical and introspective environmental meditation of the art-game Night Journey (produced via a collaboration between video artists Bill Viola and GIL), Walden changes the pace and focus of gaming.There’s nothing to shoot. No points to get. Time slows. The player looks inward. She reflects.
Click here to view the video on YouTube.
Walden is an ambitious project. Technically, Walden has a first-person perspective and a 3D engine rendering the lush forested environment and pond. According to designer Todd Furmanski, there are extra layers of complexity yet to come. He hinted at a host of practical tasks like fishing or chopping wood available to the player as well as an optional system of monetary accumulation and consumption (cleverly meant to confront the player with encroaching capitalistic requirements and desires). Procedurally, Walden is particularly challenging because it eschews the tired and ineffective literature based edu-game template which teaches players by having them read blocks of text. Instead, Walden leverages what makes games great, their ability to model and simulate environments and experiences. Rather than reading about Thoreau, or listening to him, we participate in his style of life, a process of living defined and coded, which, if all works as planned, will end with the player intuiting the virtues and pleasures of Thoreau’s life at Walden pond.
Given the obvious educational value of the project, one would expect Walden to be one of the more attractive GIL projects to funding agencies. Unfortunately, that’s not the case. Fullerton admitted that Walden exists solely as a passion project for the team members; every funding source they pitched wouldn’t back it. It exists now only because team members love the project and are willing it into existence.
It’s frustrating for sure, but a simple issue to diagnose: the “educational value” of Walden, which is so obvious to game designers and critics, is unfortunately not obvious to funders. Edu-games that get funded, and which I won’t name here, have been a disappointing strain of game culture. Funds get dumped into the wrong projects, and what gets spat out the other end? Uninspired and ineffective husks of games which might look the part, but demonstrate no understanding of how mechanics underlie play. Just as exploitationware (think Farmville) reduces the expressive beauty of games to tedious repetition and accumulation, edu-games (and many well-funded) often squander the demonstrable abilities of games to educate. Instead of Walden’s compelling simulation of the intellectual and affective journey of Thoreau, we go to an island in Second Life and read excerpts from Thoreau’s writings because that’s literary. It’s familiar; it’s comfortable, especially to people who don’t play or understand games.
The games GIL has developed prove that academic and indie game development are an indispensable and increasingly important avant-garde running counter to an industry struggling with sequelitis and gamification. Games like Walden aren’t only potentially great educational tools, they force videogames to progress, and they provide a space for risks not motivated by quarterly earnings. We need to protect these projects, and protection comes from funding.
So what can we, the pennyless masses, do?
We need to take procedural literacy beyond the classroom and into the boardroom.