Congratulations! You’ve completed level three of the GDC! Here are the secrets you discovered:
- You discovered Jason Rohrer wants to fight inflation by destroying real money
- You learned what Eric Zimmerman thinks about games and the “ludic century”
- You compiled a list of games to play this year
This year’s Game Design Challenge, a competition between three of the top game designers in the business, was to create a game that could be played in 60 seconds or less that would improve humanity in some measurable way. Jason Rohrer, who won last year’s challenge to create a game that was also a religion with his Minecraft mod “Chain World”, decided to improve humanity by tackling the problem of inflation. His game “Frog Skin” is a collectible card game played using actual USA currency as the cards! It’s essentially War, but with an added twist: you can tear any of your bills in half in order to use them twice! These bills can’t be reused or repaired; they’re gone forever. But if you have a half-bill left and your opponent is out (you each only get to play five bills total), you win that round by default (since any bill beats none). The player who wins the most rounds (bill-vs-bill pairs) wins the game and gets to keep all the “cards”. Richard Lemarchand and Noah Falstein were the other competitors. Richard ended up taking the prize this year with a game about making the audience feel shame, which I thought was a bit unfair of him–after going through an embarrassing experience (humming the Katamari theme while staring into the eyes of the person next to them), the audience would need to resolve dissonance by rationalizing that the game had been better than it actually had been. Of course, he could have just been trying to make an interesting game, and the psychological advantage was a happy (for him) coincidence. But what do I know?
Eric Zimmerman gave a fascinating talk titled “Let the Games Be Games: Aesthetics, Instrumentalization & Game Design” that addressed an idea I touched on in my posts here last year, which was that games could be beautiful not through any value or entertainment or reward that they provide to the player, but rather for their own sake. He started the talk with an assertion that we are living in an age that either is, or will soon become, the “ludic age”. It is an age defined by constant exposure to and interaction with complex systems. These systems, he argues, are going to be the primary means by which we understand our world in the coming years, and hence, they will be the center of our culture and our primary means of communication. In this sense, knowing how systems and games (which can be thought of as the fictionalization of systems) work will be the very real “literacy” of the 21st century. However, there’s a problem in that the game designers of today tend to “instrumentalize” games, turning them into a means to an end rather than an end unto themselves. Zimmerman compared this practice to what pickup artists do with human relationships and the concept of love: they turn them and their subjects into instruments to be used and exploited rather than real human experiences (or real humans!) to be savored and appreciated. The same is happening, Zimmerman argues, with games: in our quest to maximize player engagement and enjoyment, and even in our quest to understand what games are and how they can stand next to the other great media of our culture, we forget sometimes to appreciate games as aesthetically enjoyable objects in their own right. We forget that games can be unlike film, books, and music, that games don’t have to be understood systematically, in order for them to be beautiful. Even the art games movement tends to fall prey to this problem of instrumentalization: designers struggle to put “meaning” into their games, to use games to tell a story, but we sometimes forget that games can be beautiful without meaning and without stories. Now, this doesn’t mean that we can’t tell stories or make theories about our games–far from it. It simply means that no one theory or model will ever be fully correct, and that our theories are only ever as “true” as they are useful to us as designers. Many different ways of understanding games are useful in different contexts, and many different theories of game structure may be supportive or restrictive depending on what sort of story you want to tell with that game or what sort of idea you want to convey. This, ultimately, was Zimmerman’s message: no matter how you think of them, games are beautiful. They are beautiful not because they are like other media, or because they can live up the standards of those media. They are beautiful because they are different and strange and unique, and as game designers we should be proud of that fact.
While watching the Independent Games Festival awards show and the Game Developer’s Choice Awards show, I compiled a list of games that looked interesting enough to play. In all likelihood, they will be the only games I’ll have time to play this year, if that. Full-time jobs will kinda do that to you. Fortunately, it’s a fairly small list, and most of them are small independent games that shouldn’t take too long to play. Unfortunately…it’s a fairly small list. There are hundreds of small independent games that are also worth my attention that I won’t have time to get to, not to mention my considerable backlog of games small and large that I’ve been meaning to play, in some cases, for years. I’m starting with Superbrothers: Sword and Sworcery EP now that I’ve finally got my Christmas iPad out of its box. I’ll let you know how that goes.
You’ve unlocked level 4! Continue? (Y/N)