The Game Industry’s Fiery Resistance To Its Own Theory

20 Aug

I’ve been watching a good many TED talks lately, and they’re all very interesting.  And if there’s one thing I’ve learned in the past few years, it’s to pay attention to seemingly unrelated things and be ready to glean some insight from that thing that clarifies my own views.  One of those seemingly unrelated things was a talk on the theory of neuroscience given by Jeff Hawkins, creator of the Palm PDA and the Treo.

He’s a smart man, and he had lots of smart stuff to say, but one thing stood out from the rest of the talk: Neuroscience has almost no theory.  As a field of study it has huge amounts of information at its fingertips, but no way to interpret that information, no means of filtering that data through ideas.  Many researchers would rather work on brains, or study its behavior.  Interesting as collecting the data is, it’s all more or less being heaped up on a pile, waiting to be properly interpreted.  But as seems to be the case today, people undervalue thinking and put an emphasis on the hard skills that get the gritty work done.  I doubt physics would be the same without Einstein’s theory of relativity, or biology without the theory of Darwinian evolution.  As humans, we need a way to grasp vast amounts of information and put it together into something useful, something we can teach other humans.  And that’s why it deeply saddens me to see elements of the game industry so vehemently reject an approach to theory.

Staunch in their often narrow-minded beliefs, some people will just not have it.  They actively loathe the idea of videogame design theory.

Today while browsing Gamasutra I came across Ernest Adams’ article The Tao of Game Design.  I was appalled to see some of the responses.  There are favorable responses that are not mentioned in this article if only for the fact that the disagreeing comments seem to be the loud exception to the norm.  The favorable responses support the article, which I do not feel needs to be supported by anything other than itself, while the disagreeing responses disagree with Adams’ intent quite furiously.

I found this article untenably superficial.
I really would love Ernest Adams to stick to his applicable and entertaining “No Twinkie” columns instead of delivering uninspiring essays which exude common sense and have no scientifical value whatsoever.

The very idea that thought can be superficial is preposterous.  In fact, the only thing more preposterous is the commenter urging Adams to return to his factoid columns, columns that provide good practices but dare not venture beyond tricks of the trade — comparable to a carpenter relating the best way to use a lathe to an apprentice rather than a theory based on principles being taught.  Lastly, the assumption that theory should be entertaining is a gross misunderstanding of what theory should be, and if it doesn’t seem applicable then you should reevaluate how you consider game design in the first place.  And of course theory espouses common sense!  If it didn’t engage your mind in such a way that you made sense of it, then it’s not very good theory is it?  However, if it didn’t make you think a different way about some of the same things, but it did for someone else, is it not then the reader’s responsibility to understand the theory?

This article says nothing. I’ll say that I’ve found Adam’s “No Twinkie Database” incredibly useful and witty, but this is a slip on his part into armchair philosophy.

Just what is armchair philosophy?  If anything, philosophy is an excellent example of a skill that can be practiced by the layman (and Ernest Adams can be considered an authority on game design, far from a layman); all one requires to practice it is a logical brain and conviction.

It’s this kind of intangible and borderline-pretentious thinking that exemplifies my distaste for modern, academic game design discussion. While the rest of the industry is worried about how to get projects done on time and on budget, how to keep a small company from going under, and how to make a game that’s both marketable and original, game design “scholars” (of whom Ernest Adams is undoubtedly one of the loudest and largest) seem to think that game development is more analogous to sculpting a statue than engineering software.

Pretentiousness.  Academia.  These are the things that at least some part of the industry seems to be holding in “distaste”.  It is a trend of solipsism that appears to be hard wired into the brains of every other game developer.  We are in the trenches, the trenches are all that matter.  If you are not in the trenches, or are concerned with what goes on outside the trenches, then you are a traitor.  You are a pretentious twat.  You are a scoundrel who gets away writing nonsense while others toil away.  You are good for nothing, and are riding on the broken backs of your peers.

It is this sickly, narrow-minded view that is holding our industry back from establishing any kind of meaningful, unified theory of our own.  It is these people who believe that the nascent trade of game development is already an art form on par with literature, film and visual art.  Still experiencing growing pains, they would have us think we are done, and there.  If you think there is somewhere to go from here, then you haven’t worked in the trenches long enough.  Settle in, or get out, is the sentiment being expressed by these individuals.

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3 Responses to “The Game Industry’s Fiery Resistance To Its Own Theory”

  1. James August 20, 2008 at 3:49 am #

    It all sort of implies that people are forgetting that there are people playing the games, and that people themselves are more complex than any software engineering or business problem. Take the people out of the equation, then why do the games exist?

    In the end, the touchy-feely aspect of game design is about human interaction and behavior, what makes people feel a certain way, think a certain way. There are certainly philosophical and psychological aspects to it, and like those, I don’t know that it’s possible to make a grander unified theory of game design, any more than it’s possible to do the same of humanity…

    But people certainly shouldn’t be shunned for trying.

    …Or for babbling (like me).

  2. Thomas Grové August 23, 2008 at 1:12 am #

    Nice. This reminds me of when people complain that Obama is an elitist. What’s wrong with being elite? What’s wrong with being an armchair philosopher? Often times people of lesser ability perceive someone of greater ability as being pretentious, when all they’re really being is themselves or honest or natural.

  3. How to Get Six Pack Fast April 15, 2009 at 4:53 pm #

    The style of writing is quite familiar . Have you written guest posts for other bloggers?

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