Thursday, June 03, 2010

Rulebooks for Life

Today I was delighted to introduce game designer and critic Tracy Fullerton, as part of the seminar series at the Center for Computer Games and Virtual Worlds. Fullerton is an Associate Professor at USC's Interactive Media Division in the cinema school, but I first got to know her as one of the members of the feminist game collective Ludica.

She began her talk by discussing the role of the experimental avant-garde in the history of film to criticize Roger Ebert's dismissal of videogames as a meaningful genre of cultural production and rebut his declaration that "Video games can never be art." Rather than pay attention to Ebert's headline-grabbing negations, Fullerton urged her audience to attend to John Sharpe's more nuanced exploration of the potential virtues of videogames. Nonetheless, she admitted that videogames were far from a mature medium. She compared them to "gangly teenagers" who were growing unevenly and who were "held back by their own success."

Fullerton also made a point of differentiating "experimental or exploratory games" from "art games" that have recently been receiving critical attention. She also raised questions about the auteur model of game design that characterizes the work of Jason Rohrer, Jonathan Blow, and others who fit "our myth of the artist" as solo producer.

However, even collaborative approaches could go wrong, according to Fullerton, if not oriented around processes that allow time for reflection. She discussed the "game jam" mode of production, which could be wildly creative although it allowed "less time to think and less time for thoughtfulness." In contrast, she talked about the long schedules of corporate "waterfall" modes of top-down hierarchical production and how even the more dynamic "scrum" forms of mass market organization might only be "flexible" rather than reflective.

She then explained her own thoughts about the "meandering march" that might be experienced by the player navigating the experimental videogame The Night Journey and by her team of game designers as they learned to collaborate with famed video artist Bill Viola. She cited this article by William Judson about Viola's "pursuit of enlightenment through attention to transcendent experience" to explain the basic concept of a game about revelatory experiences and reflection in which players are supposed to move more slowly rather than more quickly. She explained how the "player had to enact a journey of their own" as darkness is falling in the game world.

Initially, Viola had planned to include a number of spiritual text that he had found inspirational and Fullerton was stumped by the initial plan to "read books in the game." Although they tried a number of approaches from illuminated manuscripts to word mazes to concrete poetry, the presence of the letters to be decoded seemed to detract from the game. So then they prototyped a version with a voice-over reading instead, but eventually they deleted the voice-over, which Fullerton said had functioned "like scaffolding or a mold" in the project. Unlike the usual "document, execute, polish" sequence, the results were more unpredictable but also more satisfying.

She also described her work developing Walden, a game about Henry David Thoreau's famous "experiment in self-reliant living." Unlike most games with reward "acquiring more," Fullerton wanted a game that rewarded balance. She also thought that the text was relatively easy to adapt, unlike most literary works, because Thoreau spelled out the rules himself. There were four basic needs: food, fuel, shelter, and clothing (a list that Fullerton granted many might find arguable). And then some additional quality of life items to be included: solitude, sound, reading, and visitors. Thus the game becomes about the challenge in negotiating between sustaining life and seeking inspiration. Of course, this work is still an adaptation, and Fullerton's team still had to decide what not to include. So they left out tidbits like the fact that Thoreau brought his laundry home to his mother. It is interesting to note that Fullerton described a similar issue about whether or not to include text in the game as the one she struggled with in The Night Journey. For more about Walden, see the video above, which Fullerton describes as a "tone piece," not a representation of game play and this posting about Fullerton's talk by Jana Remy.

During the question-and-answer session, the audience learned more about Fullerton's interest in "the relationship between action and outcomes," we learned more about the fascinating game Pathfinder, which her USC team has been developing to encourage students who may be the first ones in their families to go to college to learn how to "game the system" and understand "college admissions as a game." Because the point system is transparent, Fullerton hopes to help students learn about time management and fiscal planning in a way that has cards for "killer breakup" (can't earn as many points) and "robotics club" (a points bonanza).

Fullerton also talked about her confession at the recent GDC that she feared that she might be becoming a worse game designer as a result of working on so many educational games, where state standards for topics like "transcendentalism" or "botany" might interfere with the enjoyability of play.

Check back to the Center's website for video of Fullerton's talk. Footage of the Nick Montfort / Ian Bogost talk is now posted here, which I also introduced, although I did so barely coherently in a week during which I was constantly running around from place to place for the DAC conference. Hopefully the lighting will also be better for the Fullerton talk.

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