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
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.