The ghost in the machine

I am back from Montreal and about as flattened as I’ve been in awhile. A very uniquely terrific conference, though, and one I would make a repeat visit if I thought I’d still be in the northeast next year. But I suppose if Tom Buscaglia can fly out from Seattle for it I have little excuse. We shall see. Considering the short amount of time I spent out there I came back with a remarkable amount of takeaway. Very dense, friendly, professional, and high energy.

My talk was on the intersection of parenting, game development, and censorship (violence) as a collective quality of life issue. More to come on this later, including possibly a new SIG proposal for the IGDA and some interesting information from a journalist I spoke to with the Montreal Gazette. All I can say is that Mark Twain had it right:

It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.
–Mark Twain

It is amazing what so many people know for sure just ain’t so. The phrase “anti-Jack Thompson” came up frequently. Curiouser and curiouser. But away from politics and back to art.

Danny Ledonne of Super Columbine Massacre RPG presented a session as well, and also talked to the Gazette — I understand he and I were the two mainstream ‘transfer’ subjects at the conference, a change from last year where there was a great deal of common interest material as opposed to industry-specific. Check out the website. This thing is more than it seems, something that I will certainly admit I didn’t know prior to MIGS. There is now a documentary out about the Slamdance-initiated controversy around the game.

Many in the documentary make the case that these are the kinds of games that need to be made; that they take gaming to a new level. This was underscored, I understand, to some extent by Jonathan Blow’s design keynote, which sadly I missed due to outer-Montreal traffic and a lack of familiarity with the region. At any rate, it had me thinking about the various roles of art, whether interactive or not.

The rise in attention on Ledonne’s really rather fascinating project — in that category of “serious game” that is supposed to make you feel uncomfortable rather than trigger your fun-happy reflex, but of a quality that, whether purely for its subject matter or not, is hugely emotionally resonant, which many serious games can fall short of — comes timed with the rise of another very strange phenomenon coming from games…

–a warning for those who haven’t seen it yet, that link is not a joke and not lighthearted. It’s pretty heavy stuff. Non-graphic, but heavy.

This came from a Korean comic strip by the narrator who had that experience. Having played quite a bit of AC, the story was chilling to me — touching, chilling, and genuinely tragic in the truest sense. Wrenching.

Unlike Ledonne’s project, the Animal Crossing situation comes from emergent gameplay, not something specifically and intentionally designed into the mechanics. It’s obvious once you look at the game features — maybe even inevitable — but it is an example of containing a piece of memory in an interactive environment in a way that I believe is unprecedented. The Animal Crossing characters in their quirky ways exhibit emotionally acute behavior, the whole of which has an impact on us that makes us think about the nature of tragedy, the nature of memory, the nature of life experience. Super Columbine Massacre RPG has a similar trajectory; it invites exploration and analysis of crucial, complex experiences, evoking feeling in a safe environment where, hopefully, our ability to manipulate the forces at work can give us some processing, some perspective. Or maybe they just call up those memories so that they can be respected through thoughtful consideration and experience.

This is certainly a kind of art. One of the most amazing things about interactive media is that these new frontiers are all around us. I don’t think that there’s anything wrong, or ever will be anything wrong, with creating entertainment media. But I think, regardless of the format through which we are expressing ourselves, it is important to, every once in awhile, consider the capacity of the format and use that format as thoughtfully as we can to explore the human experience. Text has immortal and unchallengeable advantages, as does music, as do games. We are still finding niches and voices for fiction. The important thing is to find those core resonant themes (like Mike, I am a theme-driven writer) and express them while we still have time and breath to do so.

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