Games as a Legitimate Cultural Form

5 points to take away:
– An insight into The Chinese Room ethos
– The importance of regarding games as a legitimate cultural form
– A look at innovative ‘games’ that inform creativity and diverse experiences
– How life experience will inform innovation where there is lack of diversity
– How to inform change and promote insight into game development to reach wider audiences
– I work at the company The Chinese Room and we just released our title Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture on 11th of August. – I thought I would kick the talk off with a negative review! I want to highlight the importance to not dwell on negative reviews, because not everyone is going to enjoy what you make. So often our games are criticised as ‘walking simulators,’ and so often there are complaints regarding the walk speed and that ‘this isn’t a game!’ This is because we’re not targetting the masses and we won’t appeal to everyone… Not everyone will ‘get’ the game…And that’s okay!
– For those of you who don’t know me, I graduated from the University of Abertay Dundee in 2014 with 1st class Honours. I started working at The Chinese Room as an environment artist before leaving university. I was featured in Develop’s 2014 30 under 30 as a rising young talent in industry. I’m also a STE(A)M Video Games Ambassador – I speak at events, schools and universities and hope to encourage diversity in the industry.
– So I don’t have years of games industry experience! But everyone has a story to tell because we all have been influenced and driven by our own life experiences. And just by talking about your own experience, you can encourage and inspire people in different ways. It comes back to the concept of ‘Imposter Syndrome’ – feeling as though you’re unworthy, lacking merit and be outed as a fraud in your field. Everyone feels/has felt like this at some stage. The reality is that we are constantly developing professionally, and it’s important to keep talking about this – for us to grow personally, as well as helping to develop and shape our industry with people from different walks of life.
– The Chinese Room is an award-winning independent development studio, best known for making experimental first-person games. We create games based on atmosphere, light, music and narrative.
– The Chinese Room games have been highly regarded, but have also received critisim as they ask the audience to reconsider what is traditionally known as a ‘game.’ The term ‘walking simulator’ has been used to describe the games, as most of the gameplay is based on aesthetics, atmosphere and narrative, instead of being driven by classic mechanics based gameplay.
Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture, trailer:
– Released 11th August 2015
-Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture focuses on aesthetics rather than mechanics. There’s an emphasis on beautiful, thought-provoking storytelling, music and environments.
– Non-linear storytelling
– Discovery, immersion, wonder
– Music that supports narrative and narrative that supports music
– Authentic and relatable characters
– Unique stories and experiences
– And most importantly, we make things that we enjoy and are passionate about
But often these kind of games come under scrutiny because there’s a snobbery to what is considered a ‘game.’
Games based on ‘mechanics’
– Classic ‘games’ tend to lead the player. There’s an end goal and a system of rules. Often these games are based on mastering controls and reaction times, whilst scoring points or collecting items.
Games as ‘Experiences’
– Experiences invite the audience to explore
– Often are focused on aesthetics, narrartive and atmosphere
– Can discuss social and political issues
– ‘Experential’ games are about giving more freedom to the player
– They allow critical thought
– More capabilities for the player to experience their own stories
– ‘Video Games’ is an outdated term to describe games that don’t lean towards mechanics gameplay. But unfortunately, experential and other interactive media often has to fall under the umbrella term, ‘games’ to be seen by a wider audience. There’s a spectrum of games, and the majority of games don’t fall into the mechanics bracket, solely. But instead, we can coin new terms for a more representative idea of these: Interactive Digital Experiences.
– Games offer a variety of entertainment and are a unique interactive experience that no other medium can do. And just like all other commercial media, games are diverse and also should be understood to be subjective. Games are for everyone! Regardless of skill and an understanding of control systems. They should be inclusive and diverse and this will only ever be a huge benefit to our industry as it grows to include more people and be regarded as legitimate.
– Not all games will appeal to every person, and it’s important to not expect everyone to ‘get’ it. With games, there is a sense of snobbery and a dismissal when it comes to what a game can be. It comes from the gaming community as well as an unfamiliar audience. So why is it important to display games as a diverse medium?
– The wider audience often sees negative headlines from a variety of different sources that are regarded as legitimate. A lot of this is negative propoganda.
– There’s still the perception that games are whimsical, violent and played by teenage boys
– There is a bias rooted in misunderstanding of the games industry and development/creative process. Often games are simply misunderstood, and not enough of the truth behind game development is shown beyond the industry, which develops a lack of appreciation. Negative video games articles perpetuates the indsutry to often be a scary and alienating environment. This bleeds into peoples perception on gaming culture and who can be involved in that, which leads to a lack of involvement and understanding through to the game development process. The public often don’t get a chance to glimpse at the journet, level of skill and artistic integrity involved in making games.
There’s been a lot going on within the games industry that adds how negatively we’re viewed. A lot of the focus has been on women in games. It’s involved not only severe online abuse of women receiving death and rape threats, but also “doxxing” – finding out personal information i.e. addresses, phone numbers which has lead women having to leave their homes due to threats. This leads also into professional spheres, as it was with Anita Sarkeesian when she was forced to cancel talking at an event because no steps were taken to prevent firearms after being directly threatened prior to the event. This isn’t just affecting women, but also any allys involved in challenging the status quo.
But gaming isn’t a new medium! We’re 40 years old. We might be less established than film, music and literature, but games often has little respect to the wider audience, even still.
This has been an occurring theme amongst the majority of major accredited movements – impressionism, photography, modern art etc. It’s the natural way that also video games will progress into becoming a widely regarded legitimate cultureal form as seen by the wider public.
But things are happening, that expose video games to an unfamilar audience. Documentaries are emerging that highlight games as being an important medium. They also highlight negative attitudes towards games and often challenge them.
With the V&A in london welcoming Flappy Bird into the museum, it shows an important understanding of the significance that games play as a pivotal role in society. The V&A also wants to encourage the next innovations in video games through exhibits and explain the practice involved in making them. They’ve also appointmed Sophia George as its first Game Designer in Residence in association with the University of Abertay Dundee in 2013. This is a major step in changing public opinion on the games industry as it’s driven by a major culturally respected organisation.
But other representations of the games industry, has been damaging. A drama, The Gamechangers was aired on the BBC in September 2015, and gave a gross over-simplification of game development. As the documentary was developed by a credible and accredited organisation, with an all star cast, it gives a greater impression to the public, that what they’re watching is factual and suggests a level of authority to support the claims made in the show. Not only was it a shocking portrayal of video games, but it also massively misrepresented DMA studios and Rockstar. It took technical and notoriously complex aspects of game development, and grossly over-simplified them. This was highlighted at one point when they dicuss needing their own game engine, and in the next cut scene, show a game engine that’s been developed. IN THE SPACE OF A CUTSCENE. It’s a ridiculously dated perception of game development. A lot of the misunderstanding is based on ignorance and it’s a slanderous representation being directed at an unfamiliar audience.
This sort of representation and lack of understanding has been seen repeatedly in other forms. Jessica Curry, Composer and Studio Head of The Chinese Room, had her music from Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture removed from the classical artist albums chart in September 2015.
The only way to gain respect is by continuously discussing attitudes in games and showing games to be a variety that isn’t necessaqrily based on violence or sex. This also includes the importance in discussing the complexities of the creative and technical process involved in making a game, which is often lost or never demonstrated to an unfamiliar audience.
Games offer innovation that is rarely seen by the wider public. Our industry is increidbly creative and expressive with such incredible variety. It’s an exciting creative industry with huge potential that offers experiences that are commerical products as well as artistic exploration! And becausde of this, there’s a complete spectrum of games for players to choose from. But often these games are shadowed by ones that are targeting mass markets, which aren’t always incredibly diverse.
Games can be purely commercial products, but also can offer a cultural, economic, social and political impact. Often a games inherent value is based on the game’s specific message. It’s a medium that has near-limitless potential in terms of making positive change as an interactive digital experience. We understand what’s possible when games approach a human experience through a lens of empathy rather than one of violence. Games have only just begun to scratch the surface with stories and experiences with a need for combat. It’s important to encourage game developers to explore the possibilities, investing in innovative mechanics and storytelling techniques to push the medium forward. This can often be targeted at a niche marketed and expected to gain respect from a niche, but important audience. This can, in-turn engage new audiences and encourage different people to take an interest in games. Having new audiences will only ever be beneficial to our industry and contribute to it’s progression.
So this is the benefits of having a spectrum of games and diverse games will inform diverse games in the future.
At The Chinese Room, we want to make something that we enjoy and want to stay passionate about what we make. So often passion drives innovation and creativity is driven by passion. The Chinese Room takes a holistic approach to game development. There’s a focus on collaboration but also ownership of work within departments. Often we think of ourselves as creatives and not so much as developers making creative products. There’s a level of personal investment in the game and the message being told for unique player experiences. It invites the player to critically think and inform their own experience through exploration within the game. And the reality is that people want something different, because games are subjective.
As already mentioned, coming into game development as a traditional practitioner or a consideration to be a creative firstly before a game developer, can offer a unique perspective on the final considered product. It’s about being passionate about what is being made. At The Chinese Room, the focus is on telling a personal story through the narrative and characters to tell an authentic message. Adding in details to make a plausible and relatable world. It’s important to create something that is familiar for the player to relate and feel grounded in the world. Using life experiences to inform every decision and creative decision, and this should feed into everything that’s made. As an artist, adding in character to an environment was paramount when you don’t have conventional characters. This supports the narrative and enriches the experience for the player. And making games this was is a collaborative approach, but it’s also a personal one.
Our games invite the player to explore and they trust the player to use critical thinking to relate and understand the story being told.
Diverse people make diverse games. Or at least, diverse-thinking progressive individuals make diverse games.
Here’s some stats on diversity:
– 25% working in digital sector are female
– 14% of games sector UK employees are women
– 5% of games employees in the UK regard themselves within the LGBTQ community
– 4.7% of games employees in the UK are BAME (Black, Asian and minority ethnicities)
– 49% of UK studios agree that diversity is important in the workplace
– 45% of women in games felt their gender had been a limiting factor in their career progression
– 33% have experienced direct harassment or bullying because of their gender in the workplace
– 1 in 3 have felt intimidated, objectified, frightened or oppressed at work.
Even with just a lack of women, we’re alienating and will be misrepresenting 50% of our population from the games industry due to a lack of diversity within games.
We need to teach subjects in a way that inspires diverse developers. And it’s important our industry continues to support schools to incite and encourage young people into the sector.
Change can come when the industry has more inherent diversity. Inherent diversity is traits you’re born with i.e. gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, etc. But, we have such a current lack of this in the games industry, that there will be unconscious bias on the products we make that will reflect our own demographic that will then actively discourage people from different backgrounds to consider games as a career.
Acquired diversity must be intentionally developed, and would help to progress the industry faster.
This will only be driven through both professional and personal opportunities. Getting involved in unique and diverse sectors, out with our own demographic, we all can be better equipped to drive innovation.
There are companies that are making a difference. It’s important to embrace diversity and adopt positive change. Ukie aims to double the number of women in the games industry in 10 years. WIG have mentoring schemes and are an organisation that actively encourages not only women to join, but allies of women. As a Video Games Ambassador, I encourage young girls into the games industry and it’s also important to encourage and educate parents as well.
Doing talks about game development to unfamiliar audiences is important. As well as exposing the creative development process and the complexity of it and the fundamental knowledge required as well as technical proficiency that goes into making games.
But making change should not purely be the responsibility of minorities in the industry. It should be supported by all and especially men to stand up and challenge the status quo to make positive change.
Embrace diversity and adopt positive change. We can only progress through innovation and by supporting creativity, instead of being negative towards it.
When we create an environment where it’s okay to objectify and abuse people, we detract from the work they’re doing to challenge the status quo. This will only have a negative impact and make our industry incredibly regressive and toxic.
Become a Video Games Ambassador! Support the development of young people and encourage them to see game development as a positive, highly expressive industry.
Everyone has a valid point to make regardless of how long they’ve been in the industry, because we all have different life experiences.
We need to show the variety of individuals who make games and demonstrate to an unfamiliar public how their role or specialism can impact the games industry towards positive change.
It’s vital to support events like this one as well as smaller organisations that are non-profit but are looking to make games a more inclusive network.
Take part in Brighton Indies as well as women & LGBTQ game jams.
Get involved in things outside of your demographic.

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