I love words. Perhaps more accurately, I love communication and words are the simplest form of it. The English language is incredibly malleable, and yet we still have concepts for which there are no words. A few examples, from a link I love:
Language and words shape thought; when there isn’t a word for something, people have a hard time talking about it. This is important, because it becomes difficult to communicate concepts like this one, from Japanese:
Anjana Iyer – Found in Translation
With great enough need, we fill these gaps with new words, but until the words exist, the concepts are difficult to communicate. So many problems are a result of miscommunication, often because the right words don’t exist to properly communicate. Furthermore, as the internet’s reach gets wider and wider, entire concepts that previously weren’t well-defined are being introduced to one another.
In the meantime, we create new words constantly, sometimes generating new concepts simply because now a word exists to define it. With newly-minted words like “hangry” or “smad”, we gain a better understanding of ourselves– how our hunger affects our emotional state, or how we become angry at the state of affairs that creates events that make us sad. Following this linguistic flow and tracing the underlying roots can help us become better at communicating effectively.
For all of my excitement about working in the games industry, it’s important to me that I don’t forget where I came from. My education was in Comparative Media Studies, where I focused on video games. There, I got my taste of video game academia, where the focus is more on the potential of games and the various lofty goals they can achieve than the actual details of creation.
Having been on both sides, I find the animosity between games academia and professional video game development equal parts compelling and concerning. The cultural intuition that underlies game development is largely unknown or misunderstood in games academia, making it difficult to turn the theories and potential into solid, real games. Similarly, the lofty goals and blue-sky creativity of academia have the capability to breathe fresh air into the industry proper. Working together, these two groups could achieve incredible success.
Unfortunately, the reality is that games academia and professional game development tend to look down on one another, and do very little to meet in the middle. The different sides both feel like they have a more complete picture than the other, and thus have some difficulty benefiting from each other’s work. What I find particularly interesting, though, is that when the two do work together closely (usually from academics getting jobs in the industry), the results are often striking and innovative.
It is every kid’s dream to make video games for a living, or so I’m frequently told. Like many industries, video game development is far different on the inside than anyone on the outside expects. When I first started working in the games industry, it was a wake-up call for me– a lot of the things I thought were important weren’t, and a lot of the things I prided myself on were eclipsed by everyone around me.
The games industry is an interesting place, a blend of creative, technical, and organizational needs unlike most other industries. It is full of joy, full of bitterness, a place of great hope and pride and a volatile, catastrophe-ridden place all at once. In many ways, it is a great equalizer, where people of many different life experiences come together and work together as equals. In other ways, it is seriously flawed, with certain backgrounds, ethnicities, social statuses, and even genders mostly or entirely unrepresented.
It is an industry of laudable triumphs and embarrassing failures, of dizzying highs and crushing lows. In and among it all, for me, are the stories. Video games are often a storytelling medium, and as such those who create them have many, many stories of their own. The industry is surprisingly small, and a story told over drinks one night at a convention becomes legend when retold five years later in another country.
This is the industry I live in and love, and sometimes find enraging. It’s like a family.
People are amazing. I’m lucky to have a lot of good friends of all sorts of backgrounds, and I’m learning constantly from each one of my friends. I have always been the sort of person to focus on and value my relationships with other people; my “tribe” comes above everything else.
I’ve also grown up in a world where my “tribe” can consist of people from almost anywhere in the world, with a vast array of experiences, skills, and personalities. My world is vast, but I (and certainly people older than I am) can still remember a time when it wasn’t, and I’ve had a front-row seat for the massive change in the world.
Where once the only contact you might have with someone a few cities over or in another country was a pen pal, now some of my best, longest-lasting friends are ones who I rarely if ever see face-to-face. More and more, what it means to have a relationship, to be friends with someone, or just to meet someone new has become divorced from the physical world. As humans, we are wired to make our initial judgements about someone based on their appearance, but the Internet frequently denies us that capability. We can meet one another and form bonds without that bias, and the fallout from that is endlessly fascinating to me.
Gaming fascinates me, no surprise there. What I find the most interesting, though, is how it makes people think. For centuries, interactive media has been limited to sports and certain relatively rare forms of verbal storytelling and theatre. What video games have introduced is a new way to entertain ourselves, which requires a new way of thinking. We have long made games out of tasks, and I find it fascinating how games straddle these two core human tendencies– play and storytelling.
On top of this, games themselves leverage the way our brains work in a number of creative ways. When I first got interested in game design, I was convinced that the psychological tricks and behind-the-curtain sleight of hand in games was intentional, and fully thought out by the game’s developers. Once I spent time in the industry, I discovered that this was not necessarily the case, at least not consciously. The psychology of games is a sort of intuition among many developers, rather than an explicit set of goals.
My education taught me to codify these sorts of things, and so it’s interesting to me that this intuition among devs and unspoken expectation among players exist in a sort of ephemeral state, understood but rarely spoken of. As I can, I’m interested in trying to put words and thoughts behind these intuitions, to better structure the ideas that make great games.
Warmachine (and Hordes, its sister game) filled a niche for me among miniatures games, and I developed a love for it. When I moved from Austin and stopped playing it, I eventually found myself at loose ends; I didn’t know anyone locally who played (partly because at the time, the game was preparing for a rules revamp and thus enthusiasm for it had ebbed) but found myself looking for a group.
What I found instead was a different minis game, Infinity, which is a futuristic sci-fi-themed game which was also (at the time) fairly new and just picking up. It’s a game from Spain, and its rulebook contained a whole lot of fiction that I found fascinating– science fiction from a European (specifically, Spanish) perspective. I loved the future world the game created and the diversity of its minis, and wound up getting into it with some of the locals in my area. I found a vastly different game from the Warmachine/Hordes I was familiar with, and the new mechanics along with the fascinating fiction hooked me.
Now, I play both Infinity and Warmachine/Hordes, but they fill different niches in my hobbies. I like the blend of tactics playing both games exposes me to, and it’s been exciting to watch both games evolve over time. If I play anything competitively, it’s miniatures games, and I’ve participated in tournaments for both games quite a bit at this point.
When I was in middle school, I and a couple of friends got somewhat into Warhammer 40000, a game of space marines played on a tabletop with dice and rulers. We never really understood the game at any level, and played with some half-understood amalgam of rules. Really, we just liked collecting the miniatures and painting them.
Flash forward ten years, and I found myself in a new city (Austin, TX) having graduated college. I had relatively few friends, knew next to no one in the area, and I met someone who would become a close friend who introduced me to a game that was (at the time) relatively new – Warmachine. It reminded me of the 40k games I’d once played, but the world that was crafted for the game was much more compelling to me. I played it avidly with my friends in Austin, and only stopped when I left for a new city.
I find the game compelling because it’s a game about planning and execution, with enough randomness to keep things interesting. It also is a game that extends beyond the tabletop, where painting and planning play a major role. It offers the deckbuilding concepts that I love in games like Magic without the need to micromanage probabilities to the same extent, which I can do but don’t find terribly compelling.
I’ve recently gotten back into the game, and I find it fun to catch up on everything that’s happened since my lengthy hiatus.
At the same time that I was young and struggling with Lagoon (see #2 of this series), there was the big Dungeons and Dragons scare, where sensational media blamed Dungeons and Dragons for a laundry list of society’s ills. My mother, being curious and responsible, went to a bookstore one day to see these D&D books for herself. She didn’t really comprehend them, but what she saw suggested to her that they were harmless and that, moreover, her son (me) would be interested in them.
I found myself with a random smattering of Advanced Dungeons and Dragons books and absolutely no idea what they were for. I recently unearthed the collection, and it’s entirely haphazard– Player’s Option: Spells and Magic, Legends and Lore, Tome of Magic, Book of Artifacts, The Complete Wizard’s Handbook, The Complete Book of Elves, and most importantly, the World Builder’s Guidebook. I devoured them all with fascination, even though the point of it all wasn’t really clear to me.
What was crucially missing from the set was a Player’s Handbook, something I didn’t even know existed and thus didn’t know to ask for. I wouldn’t see a Player’s Handbook for another decade. Instead, what I had was a massive repository of information and help in building and populating worlds, and so that’s what I did. I wrote and mapped and thought about endless fantasy worlds, from the embarrassingly derivative to the (at the time) unique. The idea never occurred to me that D&D was a game you played with other people, something I wouldn’t do until my 20s, but I was very familiar with worldbuilding.
Now, I’m the DM for my group of friends, and I try to come up with interesting, varied stories for them to play.
I grew up with video games, and they’ve informed a lot of my life. From being a kid who played games while spending as little time on homework as possible (I did well in classes because it meant I could blow off doing homework which, in turn, meant more video game time) to an adult who has pursued and accomplished the dream of being a professional video game designer, games have been with me for my whole life.
When I was much younger, I played a Super Nintendo game that stuck with me– it was called Lagoon, and it frustrated me to no end. Despite playing it for many, many hours, I was never able to complete the first dungeon, despite having played and beaten many similar games. I struggled for a long time with it. Lagoon is a game of middling-to-low reviews, which in this case means that it was a very pretty, compelling presentation marred by some fundamental flaws. I desperately wanted to like that game, but that fun eluded me at every turn.
It wasn’t until later that I was able to internalize that games were not all created equal, and a failure on my part to find the fun in a game was not necessarily a flaw in myself. It sparked, for 7-year-old me, the thought that actual people (with actual person flaws) were responsible for making video games, and that if they could do it, I could to. It marked a change for me between being a person who merely consumed games and one who actively thought about the games I played and why they worked.
I play, and have played, a lot of video games. I spend a lot of time playing them and thinking about them, and they inform a lot of my inspiration and perspective. I grew up an introvert in a neighborhood of extroverts, and video games became a close friend early on. I’ve had the opportunity to watch video games grow from an oft-maligned, stigmatized medium to a medium larger than Hollywood and enjoyed by all.
When I was younger, I wished I could show people who didn’t play video games the kinds of experiences and thoughts and fun I derived from them, but was too inarticulate to do so. Now, when I have finally become articulate enough to communicate my thoughts, I’ve found myself in a world where my thoughts are shared by many.
Now, instead of trying to share my experiences with other people, I can talk with other people about our shared experiences. I can learn as much as I show, and I’m much more likely to find something I didn’t know. I play everything I have time for, and some things I don’t, and I’ll certainly be spending quite a lot of time on it here.