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So as I posted my essay last week, I saw that it was going to be number 99. And some quick mental math told me that today’s essay was going to be my 100th. Which means I’ve been operating this blog and writing essays on games for nearly two years now. I do have a retrospective I want to do at the anniversary, but I thought the 100th essay was a nice mark to celebrate as well. And an opportunity to reflect again on the process of writing about video games.
I remember as a kid being enamored with the job of game reviewer. A person who got to play games for a living! Someone who got paid to play a game and then write about it! I’m sure a lot of other people had the same reaction in their youth. While my interest in that task has waned over many years – there are reasons why I shy away from doing actual reviews in this blog – the role of “writing about video games” has opened up to more thoughtful pursuits. The role of the “game critic” – the kind of person who goes beyond the confines of a single game and instead talks about games as a whole, has risen to greater prominence. It’s not exactly a new phenomenon, per se. The growth of these critics in the industry has been going on for probably the better part of two decades, at least. But to see that shift from an industry dominated by reviews to becoming more focused on other kinds of reporting is fascinating.
Likewise, there has been a greater and greater focus in gaming journalism on proper reporting. Of talking about how games are made. Where most reporting would – and arguably still does – fixate on games as a product of entertainment, we now see more emphasis placed on the human costs that go into making or playing games. We don’t only see information about release dates or teasers or gameplay reveals, but now we get pieces on crunch and worker abuse and mass layoffs and death threats sent to game developers. We’ve seen a shift in how games are talked about from mere products to something that is crafted by human beings – and sometimes that craft can come with a price tag beyond mere dollars.
This shift in perspective nicely coincided with my own interests and studies, including the way I was approaching media more generally (specifically books and literature). My personal focus was being drawn towards analyzing a creator and their culture alongside their work, and the broader shift in games media was to examine the people behind the games. Not just the single auteur or the head of the company, but the many many people who put in the hard work to get a game running.
The value of looking at the people who make these games is understanding that games are something designed. They are not mere flashes on a screen. They are not just sequences of button presses connected by dialogue. They are experiences crafted with more or less care by human beings. Human beings with interests and desires and thoughts and feelings and quirks and everything else that makes us all unique.
And so as time lurched forward I consumed more media about game design itself, and examining games through the lens of design. I am not a game designer and have no real pretensions to becoming one – I lack the technical skills necessary, and what I’ve learned about the game industry has killed what desire I might have had to try and join. But nevertheless I have been guided by a particular principle: those who wish to learn about something can do so, as long as they put in the effort and are willing to learn.
I put down this principle to say that knowledge is not a gated community. There are many intricacies to any particular specialty that are often learned through training or direct experience, but those intricacies can be learned just through personal study. Someone who approaches these subjects with the mindset of wanting to know how things work can learn, though it may be a longer and bumpier road to travel.
So I’ve tried to learn many things about game design. I have friends who have studied or who work in game design, and I cherish their insights into so many aspects of the process and their willingness to entertain my questions and musings. I am grateful for the number of other writers and theorists and designers and reporters who have spent so much of their own time making videos and writing blogs and doing everything to create an enormous body of knowledge about games and game development and game design.
I think all of this knowledge is both useful and interesting. It’s useful in the sense that it helps us to understand games better. In multiple senses. It helps us to understand how games work. To know what is happening when things go wrong. To know why games have bugs and glitches and the like. It helps us to understand why individual mechanics or settings or characters are created as they are. And it also helps us to understand how to play games. As I have learned more about game design, I have found myself seeing so many little quirks that shout to me “this is here because a designer is trying to point out what they want me to do.” This knowledge puts almost everything about gameplay into a new light.
This knowledge is interesting because designers are human. And the human stories that go into game development give us insights into the world at large. Whether it’s how large companies manipulate players into spending money, or how studios engage in and encourage crunch, or how games attempt to address issues of inclusion and diversity. All of these little events help us to see the world in a new light – so long as we are willing to see. Because it’s easy to get angry about a game if we see it as the mere product of an amorphous and faceless corporation. If we think that a game is buggy because “the QA team” was lazy, then it’s easier to hurl abuse at them. If we think that a game includes a character because it’s “pandering to woke culture,” then we feel fine attacking the game and studio. But it’s by realizing that all of the people making these games are human beings who have their own ideas and beliefs and are capable of making mistakes and – very importantly – can often be overworked and stressed out that allows us to see games for what they truly are.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned about game development, it’s that game development is a messy process. For a lot of reasons. And so I think it’s apropos that this blog post is a bit messy as well. Understanding games as something fundamentally human – as a product that is created, with all of the pros and cons that come with that notion – is an understanding that we should be constantly pursuing. Because as easy as it is to say, actually maintaining that understanding and acting in accordance with that idea is much harder. And that’s part of why I write these posts: they help to remind me in little ways to think more coolly about these subjects. Whenever I find something that irks me in a game, examining it through these essays helps me to stop and think about its origins more carefully.