Gameful: noble cause or vanity exercise?
Posted at 01:01 on 7th November 2010 - permalink

A few weeks ago I was made aware of this Kickstarter project. (Which has since been launched.) For those who can’t be bothered to read and watch all that, in a nutshell, ‘Gameful’ is a not-for-profit initiative started by Jane McGonigal and associates intended to give funding and support to games projects – but not just any games projects, those that are deemed to be “reality-changing, life-changing, game-changing or world-changing”.

Now, I’m aware that I might come across as a contrarian arse to criticise a project that seems to be completely well-meaning and benign, but a few things about it stick in my throat.

1. Entertainment is a dirty word. The misguided utilitarian philosophy behind the (failed) serious/persuasive games movement looms large over Gameful’s mission statement. Work in any artistic medium does not have a social responsibility to be edifying. The assertion that “entertainment” is a mindless activity and cannot include ideas that go on to have any utility in a broader context unless they’ve been explicitly put there is both dead wrong and impossibly patronising.

Even the most crassly commercial games are made by skilled, emotionally complex human beings with the conscious goal of capturing the player’s interest and provoking a response. I strongly suspect that a lot of the rhetoric against ‘mainstream’ games comes from people who exclusively or predominantly play WoW – certainly McGonigal’s examples involving ‘games’ are heavily weighted toward it. Sitting down with a few games that have more narrative and simulation complexity and nuance than Tolkien’s Biggest Ever Skinner Box (I’d suggest starting with Ultima IV and working towards Machinarium, Bioshock 2, etc.) would quickly disabuse them of this belief.

2. Patronage instead of involvement. The description of the great things that Gameful want to do carry the subtext that game developers are meek, ineffectual charity cases that need heroic rich nerds to ‘save’ them. The most obvious example being one of the services/rewards being offered is “a personal Skype video or phone call with one of their game development or other creative industry heroes”. Imagine, being able to communicate with your betters! In a world where email, forums and twitter for some reason didn’t exist.

It’s easier to get a game made and played by lots of people today than it has ever been. Gameful’s concept of patronage feels most of all like a nostalgic yearning for the days when publishers held all the power. Fifteen years ago it took genius levels of talent, hard work and luck to get anywhere in games by your bootstraps. Now it still takes talent and hard work, but the opportunities available are far broader. The guys who made Minecraft didn’t have to petition an audience with Peter Molyneux (or whoever) to make their game a success.

3. Us-and-them ‘gamer’ tribalism. The efforts to make backers feel unique and special extend to the way end users are described, too. ‘Gamers’ are cool, non-gamers drool. By making a one-off payment to the special club for geniuses, you too can be entitled to guide the stupid sheep to see the world our way! This theme is expounded upon in McGonigal’s excruciatingly awful TED talk, which uses wide-eyed hand-waving and neologisms to connect surprising yet contextually meaningless statistics (“3bn hours a week playing games”, “80,000 articles in the WoW wiki”) to entirely unconnected socio-political outcomes that would be nice, y’know?

4. Glurge. Tee-hee! We’re making a super-awesum Sekrit HQ for Super Heroes! ^_^ There’s no reason for intelligent adults to talk like this. I assume the intention is to come across as crazy visionaries in touch with their inner children, but to my jaded eyes it reminds me of nothing so much as the creepily over-enthusiastic New Main Street Singers from A Mighty Wind. This cloying affectation is also why I don’t buy Innocent smoothies (apart from them being obscenely overpriced muck). Please stop it.

5. $64,000 of donations. That a vaguely defined, non-charitable exercise in ego-pandering can attract this kind of money in the current economic climate is pretty shocking, but then I suppose it’s small potatoes compared to some of the crazy things people spend their disposable income on (giant yachts, launching new newspapers, the entire sport of horseracing, etc.).

6. Finally there’s the whole Jane McGonigal thing. I just don’t get the fawning adulation that she gets from some quarters of the games media who seem to have otherwise finely tuned bullshit filters.

McGonigal is a self-described “world-renowned game designer” whose extensive CV is split between academic work and building ARGs (Alternate Reality Games – i.e. elaborate and expensive multimedia marketing campaigns) for corporate clients including McDonalds, Microsoft, IOC and the World Bank (the last of which has been scathingly parodied for its role as a propaganda tool). McGonigal seems to take extraordinary pains to present herself as a scientist and artist working for the betterment of humanity, as opposed to an advertising executive.

She also has a habit for inventing or misappropriating jargon (her extremely specific definition of the term “epic win” in the above-linked TED talk is something that has no precedent anywhere – “epic win” being a piece of cheesy parodic slang that nobody has used unironically for years, but which still occasionally snares unwary games tourists) and coming out with new-agey statements such as “People who experience an average of three positive emotions for every negative one will live 10 years longer.” There’s no evidence for it, but it’s a scientific fact.

I have a theory as to why All This isn’t met with more robust criticism by the games community. (Apart from the business about me being an arse.) We’re still at a point where anything being tangentially related to games is given a critical free pass. Computer games are seen as a fashionable technology that belong to “us” (being the sort of people who read Boing Boing and Slashdot). Anything done in their name must be worthy, and conversely anything that hurts ‘games’ (as a business as much as an artform, interestingly) can be portrayed as a pantomime villain.

This is why things like Super Columbine RPG (the gaming equivalent of the trashiest excesses of Troma Films) are subject to serious academic analysis and defence, and why Nintendo’s reprehensible, creativity-stifling business practices throughout the 1980s are compartmentalised away from cooing over kitschy Mario-themed trinkets.

Maybe I am just too cynical. But you have to admit that the hypothetical scenario of, say, the Something Awful goons taking control of Gameful would be amazingly entertaining, if not “reality-changing, life-changing, game-changing or world-changing”.

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