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Friday, 27 January 2012

POCOS Conference, Cardiff, Day 2: Preserving Communities

As I touched on yesterday, preserving software - the disc, cartridge or what have you that the game is stored on - is only one piece of the problem. The opening keynote for day 2 was delivered by Richard Bartle, and discussed the importance of both preserving games with an audience in mind, and also preserving the contextual and ethnographical data surrounding the games.

He used the example of MMORPGs to illustrate how the software alone is relatively useless - it is the virtual world, and the virtual world's inhabitants that make the game what it is. However, I would argue beyond this; it is not only multiplayer or online games such as this that have an important community aspect. A huge number of games have dedicated fan websites or groups, and these communities often bring completely new meaning to their chosen games. Whether this is running tournaments that use rules not actually built in to the game, but mutually agreed upon prior to play, or whether it is producing swathes of fan-art and fan-fiction, it all contributes to that games cultural 'footprint'. One need only consider the Final Fantasy series to see this; websites dedicated to documenting tirelessly every conceivable component of every game in the series, discussing different interpretations of storyline and many other things.

Bartle discussed the possible different ways that in future, different people may 'read' a game. Historians, for example, will be interested in very different aspects of preserved data than say, ethnographers, psychologists or even other games designers. Making the data we preserve useful and accessible to these different demographics is almost as important as the act of preserving itself.

But then of course, how do we even contemplate preserving all of this data, all of this culture? We can't possibly cater to every possible future use of it. We need instead a compromise, and a decision of what is more, or less, important to preserve for future generations.

A combined and coordinated effort is required, from all parts of game culture; from developers, to publishers, to webmasters and writers, journalists and researchers... Not to archive everything of course, that would be an impossible task. However, identifying key influential games - those that had a significant and lasting societal impact - and preserving as much about them as possible, that will be what the historians and researchers of tomorrow will require. By providing a detailed archive of the key turning points and eureka moments from throughout the evolution of games, the groundwork for understanding the broader culture of today will be in place.

In my opinion, that is the only workable and realistic solution. Firstly however as I began by saying yesterday, we need to get our industry understood and appreciated by the masses. We need to shout from the rooftops, let as many people know as we can; games are important, games are cultural objects, and games are worth preserving. Only then can we begin to make real progress in the actual act of doing so.

All comments welcomed below!

Thursday, 26 January 2012

POCOS Conference, Cardiff, Day 1: Preserving Games as Cultural Objects

The preservation and archiving of games is not something I would usually immediately class myself as being interested in. Let's be honest, words such as 'archive', 'library' and 'preservation' don't conjure up mental images of grandure and glamour; more of dark rooms and dusty tomes. However, I do very much agree, and this has been more and more noticeable to me as I have moved more heavily into research, that some sort of formal, structured method of keeping games accessible beyond their 'shelf-life' is a neccessary and important consideration. Too often have I gone off in search of a title from the birth of the industry (and in many cases not even as far back as that), only to find it not only unavailable to play, but almost entirely unavailable to obtain any information on whatsoever. How can our medium, our industry, evolve, if its roots are slowly disappearing further and further into the ground?

Dan Pinchbeck's opening keynote talk discussed the fact that, regardless of what we as gamers may think, the wider populous often doesn't consider games as objects in need of preservation. What possible cultural, or any other type of value, could possibly be placed upon tools for the dismemberment of aliens (for example)? Like it or not however, games themselves are a natural progression of narrative - from literature came film, from film we move on to interaction. Yes, we may place a layer of gibs and green blood over it, but games at their core often explicitly or implicitly discuss quite deep and probing questions, or provide a reference point for players to go away and seek out other texts. To use one of Dan's examples, S.T.A.L.K.E.R: Shadow of Chernobyl, on its surface a first-person shooter with mutated creatures to shoot, but simultaneously drawing upon Strugatsky's Roadside Picnic. Playing this game, whether you like it or not, gives you a crash course in this otherwise relatively obscure russian short story. The experience broadens your horizons, not just of games, but of literature also.

Even the most stubborn of individuals who still do not accept the worth of games after the above line of argument cannot deny the fact that games are an enormous social, cultural and developmental influence. The society of today is influenced in so many ways through games and the surrounding communities. The economy surrounding the games industry is again something that cannot be ignored as it continues to grow day by day. What happens in 50, 100 or 1000 years time when researchers and historians of the time want to know what life was like right now? Without the objects that helped to shape our culture, or without at least a record of them, there is no way of determining that. 

The problem of course now comes from how such massive amounts of digital content is preserved, and also organised in such a way as to be retrievable. Not only the digital content is needed of course; in many cases, such as arcade cabinets, the hardware itself is integral to the experience the player has and thus the impact the entire entity has.
This, I will save for a second posting tomorrow. I've typed enough for one day...

Friday, 20 January 2012

The Importance of Being Cross-Disciplined

If there is one thing that gets me riled up (there's plenty to be honest, but today we'll focus on this one), it is the phrase "I'm an <insert skill here>, so I don't need to understand or have any knowledge of <insert all other possible skills here>". The number of students I hear this from is incredible. Some may be being less serious than others, but in any case, having this mindset is a recipe for disaster when it comes to working on live projects.

Now I'm not going to lie; I probably had the same mindset when I first came to University. I wanted to be a 3D Artist and I had minimal interest in programming. In the five years since then however, what roles have I had?

3D Artist (obviously), but also 2D Artist, Project Manager, Programmer, Game Designer, Level Designer, Event Scripter, Sound Editor, Voice Artist, Script Writer, heck even Producer in a partial sense for one project. I've worked with at least five different game engines, across three or four platforms, including stereoscopic virtual reality work. All of this from a student who started with the same narrow mindset as above.

The thing is, through doing all of these various things, I've actually found that I have more of a penchant for Level Design, Scripting and Project Management. Obviously I still enjoy the art side of things, and my portfolio reflects this too, but it is no longer the be all and end all when it comes to job applications. I am no longer restricted to filtering search results to 'Junior 3D Artist', meaning not only do I have more scope in looking for work within the games industry, but I have more scope in looking outside of the games industry for work too.

This is not to say that specialism is a bad thing; far from it in fact. Most of the time, a 'jack-of-all-trades' is not an attractive prospect for an employer. You need to have a very strong ability in your chosen area. I guess what I am really saying is that specialism need not be at the forefront of your mind if you are a fresh-faced and eager new student. Allow the University experience to expose you to the full range of roles and skills that your industry has to offer. Try and absorb as much information as you can, and try to push yourself as far as possible in a new skill - you may well find you have a natural ability where you least expect it!

And even if you still end up right back where you initially started, finding that the role you originally wanted to work towards is, in fact, the correct calling for you, you will have importantly gained a good understanding of other areas. Understanding, for example, programming, even if you are an artist is vital, and vice versa. It enables a much better understanding of the limitations and constraints of each role.

Ultimately, understanding leads to better communication, better team-working ability and greater employability.   In the current job market, any advantage is not to be sniffed at. The earlier this is understood, the better.