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Dead medium: Computer Games Are Dead (Part 1)
From: ChrisCr@aol.com Chris Crawford

INTERACTIVE ENTERTAINMENT DESIGN Volume 9, Number 4, April 1996

Interactive Entertainment Design
5251 Sierra Road
San Jose, CA 95132
published six times/year, $36 year, $50 outside US

(((Chris Crawford is a computer game designer and industry

activist, author of "Balance of Power" and other works,

and founder of the Computer Game Developers' Conference.

I have long thought that Crawford's home-published

"Interactive Entertainment Design" is the best theoretical

zine held together with staples. In the latest issue

Crawford develops the daring thesis that the multi-

zillion-dollar computer gaming medium has lost its way and

is doomed to perish. I feel that his detailed

speculations on the forthcoming death of his medium are

worthy of close study from Dead Media devotees, so I have

asked and received permission from Mr Crawford to run his

essay on the DMML. The essay will be run in its entirety, but

divided into four parts. Part One follows.

(((A personal note: my second daughter, Laura Ivy

Sterling, was born on April 12, 1996. Mother and child

are doing fine -- Bruce Sterling)))

Computer Games Are Dead
Chris Crawford

Death is an intense word. We associate it with evil,

oblivion, finality. We can think of death in its narrowest

meaning, the moment of the termination of life. The throat

rattles, the heart stops beating, and we say that death

has come. But is death confined to that instant of

actualization? For a person whose kidneys have failed, and

medical intervention is unavailable, death is inevitable.

The terminal cancer patient will surely die. The suicide

in mid-plummet is just as certain of death as the victim

of a major stroke. Thus, the clean line we seek to draw

between life and death is often blurred by the

complexities of causality.

"Where there's life, there's hope" == this is one of

the adages preserved by Erasmus. I propose to turn the

adage around: where there's hope, there's life. When the

causal factors are sufficient to give us reasonable hope

of future adaptive change, then we say that the organism

is alive. When those causal factors give us no reasonable

hope of future adaptation, then the organism is as good as

dead. A magnificent oak tree whose roots have been

infected with root fungus may linger on for years, but the

arborist will tell you that it's dead. Where there's no

hope, there is death.

This is the definition that I will use in arguing my

prognosis for the computer games field. Is there hope of

future adaptive change? I think not; therefore, I conclude

that computer games are dead.

When I speak of "computer games", I refer to a complex

organism. It's not just a collection of shrink-wrapped

boxes sitting on some store shelf. Nor is it encompassed

by so many terabytes of code, video, imagery, text, and

sound. "Computer games" are an entire field, an industry,

a community. I prefer to think of it as an organism

composed of a variety of subsystems, each of which

contributes to the overall health of the organism.

In living creatures, the process of death is a

collective collapse of all the constituent subsystems.

Indeed, most deaths are attributable not to any single

subsystem failure but rather to a collective synergistic

failure of all the subsystems. As the kidneys grow weaker,

the concentration of poisons in the blood increases,

reducing overall system efficiency. Metabolism slows down

and the heart pumps less. Appetite is reduced, thereby

reducing the supply of nutrients with which to repair

damaged cells. Resistance to infection falls, and

opportunistic infections arise in the lungs. The creature

grows lethargic, and in this lethargic state blood flow to

limbs and musculature is reduced, further reducing

recuperative capabilities in these regions. The whole

system grinds downward towards a collapse.

I believe that much the same thing is happening with

computer games, although I do not anticipate a complete

collapse of the organism. Instead, I see it reaching a

state of moribund stasis. The computer games industry is

here to stay, but it could well spend its future in a

coma, without hope of future adaptive growth: technically

alive but dead in every meaningful dimension.

An example of my meaning is provided by the coin-op

industry. I remember, back in the late 70s and early 80s,

when coin-op was the leading edge of electronic game

design. The brightest and most talented designers worked

in the coin-op field, because it was the field with all

the creative energy. All the great games were originally

designed in the coin-op arena, and were then translated to

the videogame and computer game fields. Do you remember

Space Invaders, Pac-Man, Centipede, BattleZone, Tempest,

and those other coin-op classics? Those were heady times.

But look at coin-op now. Yes, the industry is still

here. They continue to ship products and make money. But

where is the creative ferment? Where is the excitement of

those earlier days? Who pays attention to their work?

Coin-op has become a backwater, a comatose field marking

time. Like old men sitting on the porch, reminiscing of

the good old days, coin-op is just marking time until it

dies. When it does, its passing will attract as much

attention as the death of the ticker-tape machine or the

telegraph; few will notice and none will care.

Videogames are moving along the same track, although

their decrepit state is not so obvious. Like a dying oak,

they still sprout new leaves every spring. But like the

oak, you can only see the trend if you've been watching

for a long time. The old-timer notes how, with each

passing year, the new foliage is sparser and less

exuberant. The youngster sees only the mighty trunk and

the bright green colors, and does not understand the old-

timer's sad shaking of his head. So it is with

videogames. Yes, we continue to see new games each year,

but they are ever-more pathetic echoes of past design

greatness. Mario's children abound, but as heirs made

feckless by easy wealth, they lack the drive and energy of

their great ancestor. Videogames have been dead for years.

And now computer games are dead. The dying has been a

long time coming, but it's here now. Yes, I realize that

you don't see the indicators as clearly as I think I do; a

cursory examination shows an apparently healthy patient.

But let me show you how to look more closely at the

organism, how to smell the ketotic breath, the asymmetric

iris that are sure signs of inevitable death.