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My Response to Heather Chaplin

Posted by Nick Dinicola on April 3, 2009

If you’ve been keeping up with news from GDC, you probably know about Heather Chaplin’s rather scathing criticism of the game industry at the GDC panel “Burned by Friendly Fire: Game Critics Rant.” Here’s the gist from MTV Multiplayer, and the rant in more detail from IGN and pixelvixen707.

First off, she has some valid criticisms. A lot of games are “power fantasies” dripping with “guy culture.” I play Gears of War and God of War so I can feel like badass. While it may be fun feeling like a badass, games should strive for more, and this is where I start disagreeing with her.

I don’t think game developers are “…a bunch of stunted adolescents,” and I don’t think games avoid themes like responsibility, introspection, intimacy, and intellectual discovery. David Jaffe responds better than I can on the whole “stunted adolescents” part of Chaplins rant, but there’s one thing she said that he didn’t touch on.

From pixelvixen707:

…she reports at NPR among other venues. She says this puts her in the role of a “translator,” trying to tell the mainstream why gaming even matters. This also means explaining a lot of big-name games that feature zombies, and aliens, and girls in metal bikinis wielding axes.

It seems to me that Chaplin sees her role as “translator” as a bad thing. Stepping into her shoes, I imagine it would be infuriating having to constantly defend video games as a valid medium while the best examples of the medium involve violence, aliens, and zombies. It’s hard to take zombies seriously. I think she wants the game industry to make a game she can show her peers at NPR and not have to explain why it’s important; her peers should just get it. But I don’t think that will ever happen even if a game comes out that doesn’t feature zombies or aliens, because I don’t think people can “get” a game without playing it. What makes a game so memorable is the experience we have while playing it, the skin around that experience doesn’t matter. Even if a game is cliche as hell, if it provides a new or even just a memorable experience, then it’s a good game.

For people who don’t play games, it can be hard to look past that cliche skin. When they look at Left 4 Dead, all they see is another shooter…now with zombies, they don’t see the camaraderie that develops during a play session, the teamwork needed to succeed, the dramatic intensity when a teammate goes down and cannot be rescued. They don’t see the very thing that makes Left 4 Dead so brilliant. So it’s up to people like Heather Chaplin to translate for them, to put that experience into words in a way they can understand. It’s hard to do. Often when I’m trying to relate something that happened to me in a game, I realize that my words fall short of truly capturing the moment. Even if the other person is a gamer who can picture the event exactly as I describe it, I know he hasn’t felt it. And it’s that feeling that really sticks with us, that makes us want to relate our “war” stories, that makes us love video games. You can’t get that kind of experience by watching a video of the game, or reading a description of the game, you have to play the game. That’s why I think Chaplin’s dream game is unrealistic: In order to understand a game, one must play the game, and if one wont play the game, one wont ever really understand it.

Chaplin singled out Gears of War as an example of the male-driven power-fantasy game that’s so hard to defend, and David Jaffe has a good defense of it in his response to her:

GEARS OF WAR 2’s theme is generic, 14 year old boy/Heavy Metal magazine power fantasy turned up to 11. And NOTHING IS WRONG WITH THAT. If I am in the right mood, I LOVE that stuff. Other times, not so much. But to assume that the game is the theme shows that perhaps you are getting stuck in the same quicksand as most folks who attack games simply based on the surface presentation (i.e. congressmen who want to pass bills banning games). As a GAME experience, Gears is fresh and alive and semi-new. The game marks the first time the cover mechanic was executed well enough to impact the stale shooter genre in a significant way.

Games do have some growing up to do, the skin around the experience is often juvenile, and while there are exceptions they are just that, exceptions. But it’s also important to remember that the experience is what matters most.

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