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Dead medium: Computer Games Are Dead (Part 3)
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

(((We continue Mr Crawford's essay on the decline of

computer gaming, "Computer Games Are Dead.".)))

THE DEATH OF CREATIVITY

A related factor in this == perhaps a symptom of

the previous factors == is the death of creativity. I have

been participating in this industry for 16 years now, and

I have noted a sharp decline in the overall level of

creativity in the industry since about 1990. The last

truly original game we have seen is SimCity. This failure

manifests itself most clearly in the slavish imitation of

other designs. Everybody scrambles to make a Doom-clone

or a Myst-clone. Why must we spend so much time copying

each other? Isn't there anybody out there thinking an

original thought?

Another way of saying this is that we just don't try

fundamentally new ideas. Is the universe of entertainment

confined to adventure games, shoot-em-ups, vehicle

simulations, and strategy wargames? Is that really all

there is to design?

Some people have suggested that our standards of

creativity have fallen because we have already discovered

everything there is to create. Having already staked out

the territory, we are now in a more mature phase where we

merely examine the nooks and crannies that were overlooked

in the initial creative reconnaissance of the 1980s.

This argument leaves me aghast. I can't decide whether

to condemn it for its cynicism, its stupidity, or its

intellectual vainglory. Consider, for example, the scale

of human ingenuity unleashed by the invention of the

printing press. The basic technology has remained stable

for over 500 years, and yet during that time we have seem

an ongoing cavalcade of new ideas. First the printing

press was used for devotional works, then polemic works.

It was the driving technology behind the Reformation, and

then became a medium for scientific collaboration. It

also became a source of entertainment, expanding to bring

literacy to the masses in the nineteenth century. It is

now the basis for a bewildering array of elements

fundamental to our civilization. And this is just a way

of putting ink onto paper == contrast that with the vastly

greater power of the computer!

Consider the fact that the personal computer has

increased in power by at least a thousandfold since its

inception. To suggest that, in fifteen short years, we

have fully explored the creative potential of a medium

more powerful and changing more rapidly than any other

medium in human history is ridiculous. Creative life and

energy should be the hallmark of our industry; the

creative failings of the last five years are sure signs of

its morbidity. If all this creative potential cannot

inspire us to mighty leaps of creative derring-do, then

surely our souls are dead, dead, dead.

A DEAD COMMUNITY

Another indicator of industry mobidity is the loss of

the spirit of community. This is best evidenced by the

steady shift in spirit at the Computer Game Developers'

Conference.

Here's something I wrote in the June 1988 issue of

this same periodical in reference to the first CGDC: "But

easily the most powerful feeling of the day was the

dawning sense of awareness of community. For the first few

hours, you could see people looking around the circle of

faces with a sense of awe. 'My God!' their faces said,

'Lookit all these other people who are game designers just

like me!' People who have spent years working in

isolation suddenly realized that there are others who ask

the same questions, fight the same battles, and make the

same mistakes they have."

Contrast this with the spirit of the 1995 CGDC. It

was huge and impressive, to be sure, but the sense of

anomie was overpowering. The banquet was swanky but had

none of the warm communal spirit of times past; instead it

had shouting, food thrown, and people ejected. What was

once a communal gathering has become a carnival, a meat

market, and a promenade; it felt more like a cotillion

than a family picnic.

Some of this change is the unavoidable result of

growth, but we can't pin all the problems on growth. Some

cities have developed slums, crime, and inner city decay

as the consequence of their growth; other cities have

grown just as rapidly without encountering these problems.

Somewhere on the path from my living room to the Santa

Clara Convention Center, the CGDC lost its soul. And I

think that this loss is reflective of deeper trends within

the community as a whole.

Let's talk about morality. It seems to me that most

people take an entirely too religious approach to

morality, treating it as something mystical and sacred,

full of absolute truths and moral imperatives. I view

morality in more pragmatic terms, as a collection of rules

for social cohesion. Moral systems allow people to live

together in cooperating communities. Every community and

subcommunity has its own local mores, its special variant

moral system. Our industry is a community with a moral

system, and that moral system is democratically

established in much the same way that a language is

established: people embrace what they like and reject what

they don't like, and the collective average of everybody's

choices constitutes the language and moral code for the

community.

Thus, moral code and language are the primary glue

that holds the community together. A community with a

vibrant language and a strong moral code will prosper; a

community with a divided language or a weak moral code

will be destroyed by its fissiparousness.

I was once discussing a complex financial transaction

with my financial advisor when I suggested what I thought

was a simple solution to a knotty problem. He dismissed

my suggestion with the slightest edge of distaste in his

voice: "We don't do that kind of thing." He went on to

explain that my suggestion, however innocent in intent,

was similar to a ploy used by unethical persons and was

therefore shunned by honorable traders. While perfectly

legal, it was a violation of the unwritten moral code of

his community, and as I studied the workings of the

financial instrument in question, I came to understand the

practical value of my advisor's prohibition.

I remember another case in which I was discussing a

business deal with my agent, who was a member of the New

York book publishing community. As part of the deal, he

wanted me to jump through some hoops, and I was rather

impatient with the rigamarole. When I protested the

impracticality of his request, he explained, "That's the

way we do things." My protest ran afoul of an unwritten

rule of his profession. Again, that rule made perfect

sense in the context of the kinds of business transactions

he worked with every day.

It seems to me that the games community has failed to

establish a solid moral code. Perhaps the gold rush

mentality that we have lived with for so long has seeped

into our souls and poisoned our values. In the last five

years I have observed with growing dismay the steady

erosion of altruism, the decline of artistic aspiration,

the stealthy march of greed. But worst of all has been

the moral apathy of the community as a whole, a cynical

shrugging of the shoulders at the process of moral

decline.

Some years ago a powerful publisher brought under-

the-table pressure to bear to prevent an individual from

giving a technical lecture at CGDC, even though the

primary subject matter of that person's lecture was his

own proprietary technology that he had used in conjunction

with a project involving the powerful publisher. The

powerful publisher's attitude was that every aspect of

their operation was a proprietary secret, even those

aspects that they had not themselves created.

I publicly raised the moral issue created by this

case; did we as an industry want to live with this kind of

moral precept? My question should have spurred a soul-

searching debate about the complexities of intellectual

property and how ownership of that intellectual property

can spread to others through business relationships;

instead it was met with utter apathy. Nobody seemed to be

interested in the question.

More telling is the sad story of the sale of the CGDC

to Miller-Freeman. Here was the premier community event of

our industry, explicitly founded and historically operated

as a public service, not a vehicle for personal gain.

Incoming directors were required to promise not to harbor

expectations of deriving personal gain from the power that

they were being given. Their stock was contractually

specified to have a value of exactly $25.

In the early years, there was no question as to our

altruistic intent; it was woven into the fabric of our

corporate culture and provided the basis of many of our

decisions. It was a profoundly healthy moral rule,

something that conferred great power on CGDC and a major

factor in its spectacular success. In the early days,

everybody pitched in to make CGDC a success.

But then the moral miasma of the community infected

the CGDC. Greed whispered ever more insistently in our

ears. I must confess before God and the universe that I

was sorely tempted; I flirted with greed and explored the

possibilities of being "just a little greedy". I wondered

aloud whether there was not some middle road between

altruism and greed.

I never had the opportunity to transform my illicit

fantasies into actions noble or evil, for the others

kicked me out and confiscated my stock. They then decided

the issue themselves by selling CGDC to Miller-Freeman for

an undisclosed sum. I do not know how much they got; I am

told that it was a great deal of money. In so doing, they

violated their promises to others and indirectly

transferred huge amounts of money out of the pockets of

their colleagues in the community and into their own

pockets.

Even more striking was their treatment of their

former partners, the previous directors of the CGDC: they

gave each such person $3,000 in return for a legal waiver.

This amount represents an infinitesimal fraction of what

they kept for themselves.

The most astounding aspect of this entire affair is

the reaction of the community. When I laid these facts

before members of the computer game community, the most

common reaction was a cynical shrug of the shoulders.

"What did you expect, Chris?" There was no sense of moral

outrage, no concern that such behavior poisoned the

atmosphere for everybody. Instead, some people applauded

the sellers for having gotten rich. Others abdicated all

moral responsibility, arguing that moral policing is the

duty of the law, not of individuals. Some placed personal

loyalty ahead of moral sensibility, deciding the case on a

strictly ad hominem basis. Some chose to bury the matter

under an obfuscatory pile of uncertainties, demanding

written proof of criminal intent before they would pass

judgement. Some just preferred to avoid conflict. The

end result was a community-wide acquiescence to behavior

that many other communities would refuse to tolerate.

Some of the same people who sold the CGDC are now

running the CGDA. One would think that CGDA members would

demand their replacement at the earliest possible date, if

only to assert the highest moral standards for their

nascent organization, but in fact no such demand has

materialized. Indeed, one of the sellers, Ernest Adams,

is now a candidate for a full-time salaried position as

Executive Director of the CGDA. When I point out the irony

of this situation to members of the community, the most

common response is, "If he does a good job for us, why

should we care about his past?"

The problem here isn't Ernest Adams or any of the

other people who sold CGDC. They are only the touchstone

against which the moral strength of the community is

tested. The problem is with the community. A group that

responds to allegations of unethical behavior with a

cynical shrug of the shoulders is a moral corpse, a

collection of individuals elbowing against each other

rather than a cohesive community. Without a strong moral

infrastructure, this community is only marking time before

it fractures into defensive enclaves.