Thinking some more about the ideas in Andrew Vanden Bosche’s great post that I responded to the other day, I realised that I hadn’t really thought about it from the perspective of the game designer, i.e. from the position that someone like Jeff Yohalem is in. So what is it like to be Yohalem, and to be in his position? What is compelling him, from his perspective?
As a disclaimer, this is going to be largely speculative and may or may not prove accurate. However the structure of the game designer’s explanations for why they made the game design choices that they did are often remarkably similar from person to person, so much so they form something of a trope. The culprit that is inducing the game designer to produce certain types of things is quite usually (though by no means always) gamers themselves, or perhaps more accurately (thought more abstractly) gamer expectations. In other words some kind of cultural push that Yohalem et al. feels from outside their own workplace is limiting, directing or shaping the kinds of choices that the designers themselves can make. Marketing departments at Ubisoft probably form a part of this ecosystem, but game designers aren’t aloof from their own culture, either. They tend to know what “gamers” like and enjoy because they are gamers themselves, they buy the same games, they read the same publications, they have Twitter and Facebook, etc, etc.
I’m going to pick out a quote from the Yohalem interview at RPS that I linked in my original post that I think is pretty telling, and highlight some of the important phrases:
“I feel like we’re in this place in the videogame industry where we’re in an abusive relationship. Players feel like game developers don’t respect them, and don’t create meaningful works for them, so they call a lot of games stupid. And a lot of developers get upset because things are being called stupid, and they say that players don’t get it anyway, so they just handhold them all the [way] through. I think that’s an abusive relationship. You need to break that cycle. You need to cause both sides to step back and say, “Maybe there’s something else that we can both have between each other.” We can create situation where players go, “Huh, maybe games have something interesting to say after all, and I’m going to listen.” And then that puts the pressure on game developers to not create lazy crap.
So here’s a clue: Yohalem feels that players can and do put actual, real, felt pressure on developers somehow. For gamers themselves, this probably comes as something of a revelation, since the closest any of us come to feeling like we have any influence over the games that get made comes either through voting on which banal version of the boxart we like better (which is more like participating in a focus group without getting paid), or by organising boycotts or petitions (still rather abstract; though it occasionally gets things done by demonstrating a significant market, a la Dark Souls on PC), or slightly more directly by backing Kickstarter projects. As far as I know, Far Cry 3 involved none of these.
Putting aside for the moment Yohalem’s troubling views on arbitration and breaking the cycle (tl;dr – when two ‘sides’ aren’t equal there’s no such thing as breaking the cycle by making tem both ‘step back’. Imagine doing that in something like apartheid South Africa and see how unfair that attitude actually becomes) how might Yohalem be directly feeling the pressure from game players? I think the clue is in that all the vectors for ‘player pressure’ on developers come in the form of aggregates or otherwise abstracted forms. There are no direct conduits for ‘player agency’ to express itself on game development, so no wonder players become hyperbolic and feel like Shinji Ikari who gets no say in the matter of what kinds of games are available for him to play, or over the future direction, development and philosophy of these games.
There’s an easy target of all-caps CAPITALISM! here but I want to ignore that for a second and think more about the difference between individuals and aggregates. The problem with aggregating and encapsulating player agency into these ‘markets’ or collectives of petitions, or cumulative buying power, etc, etc (we might add – collective outrage/influence power to this list, but that’s a far more complex issue) is that it is a reductive process. My concerns, wishes and desires are not going to be identical to your concerns. They may overlap, but there is no way to non-reductively combine our issues and ball them up into one collective ‘pressure’ unit to direct at game developers to get them to stop or start doing something, or influence them in other more nuanced ways.
For example, I’m thinking of a post by Claire Hosking that really highlights the troubling intersection of valid and important concerns about the representation of women in games with the just as valid and just as important concern about allowing women of all body shapes and sizes (including women with large breasts! Hello Lara Croft!) be represented in media and to also possess their own rich inner life. The concern here is that in the push for more ‘natural’ or ‘normal’ or (heck) even realistic body shapes we can accidentally trip into the situation where we deny busty women the kind of nuance and interiority that we grant to, say, Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Veronica Mars. Claire’s example in the forthcoming post is Christina Hendrick’s character on Mad Men, who is voluptuous and objectified by those around her but which the show itself treats with the same respect as any other character.
So it is incredibly difficult to aggregate such nuance effectively – I’m “for” more body-diversity in games, and I’m all for the reduced “objectification” of women in games, but I’m also not happy with sacrificing representations of busty women just to stop teen boys objectifying them? Suffice to say, shit is complicated.
For another great example, look at the intellectual work that Robert Yang has to do to unify even in a blog post the “Queer Feminist Agenda” for games. Imagine how much harder it’s going to be to unify actual people, with actual opinions and hesitations and peccadillos and all the other things that come along with being human. But there’s a good reason to try, particularly since it’s partly how we get game designers like Jeff Yohalem take notice of us. There are good reasons to encapsulate or aggregate.
I’ve half-joked before about the need for a Gamer Union or something like that. I don’t have the time or ability to organise it myself, but I actually quite seriously believe in the potential in something like a gamers lobby group or union or something (at least, one that was done well. We’re already sort of doing this in a loose and anarchic way through twitter and the like). Imagine the impact we could have had when the Girlfriend mode thing happened if we could go to Randy Pitchford and say “Here are 10,000 people not happy with that glimpse of your studio’s development culture. What are you going to do to change that?” How’s that for some pressure?