Justifying Games

Several of us from EdGE were at the Game Developers Conference (GDC) in San Francisco last week, and while I know attendance affected me (see earlier post), I want to talk about something else—justification of games.

A theme of a number of the talks I attended was a push-back against the idea that games need to justify themselves somehow, with speakers arguing against the position that it’s not enough for a game to just be fun, that it needs to be weighty or meaningful or message driven. I agree. I love playing games, and mostly I want to play them for escapism and fun and time with friends. Games, as a whole, do not need to be justified.

But let’s dig into this a bit more. Making a parallel between movies and games, two separate GDC talks referenced the old movie Sullivan’s Travels. I haven’t seen this movie yet, but as I understand the plot, the main character, Sullivan, is tired of making “puff movies” and wants to make a movie that is serious and meaningful, capturing the plight of the poor and downtrodden. To gain insight, he sets off as a hobo and has a lot of experiences that eventually bring him to a really low, dark place… where he realizes the power of movies to bring laughter.

The speakers who referenced Sullivan’s Travels were making the point that, just like movies, games don’t need to have a higher purpose, do not need to justify themselves; however, in doing this, they were pointing to a movie that had a higher purpose. Sullivan’s Travels is a message movie about how movies can be just fun and don’t have to be messages! For me, the distinction is in the little words—”can” and “don’t have to” vs. “need to”. Games should indeed not feel like they need to justify themselves—but this doesn’t mean that some games can’t or shouldn’t have additional purpose or meaning. Which brings us to EdGE.

EdGE is designing and making games with the express purpose of engaging players in scientific inquiry and learning. Moreover, we’re using taxpayers’ money to so. EdGE games do need to justify themselves. There’s nothing wrong in providing entertainment, and our games certainly need to do that, but if our games don’t also do more, then we’ve failed. We won’t fail.

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