Coding Dispositions at GDC

[Note: This post originally appeared on Terra Nova.]

March 23, 2006

Not too long ago on the TN backchannel, a few of us got to talking about the tendency for game designers and developers to fall into the trap of looking down upon their users, devaluing their knowledge, opinions, and skills. Well, in the wake of my first (and certainly very limited) GDC experience, I’m surprised to find myself revisiting this criticism of game developer myopia. I’m coming to believe that precisely what this site might be seen as testament to — the ability of researchers, writers, designers, and developers to talk together productively — is the very thing that may not have much potential beyond cozy corners such as this…

What really stuck in my craw during the Social Science and Games panels (very well organized by T L Taylor) on Monday was the following: The presentations by academics were interesting, wide-ranging, and mutually conversant (with the important exception of my own, no doubt), yet two leading voices on games research and design, Eric Zimmerman and Raph Koster, took the opportunity to publicly ask how these ideas could possibly be relevant for them.

So, nothing new so far, right? We’re used to explaining this gap. Of course it was the academics’ fault for speaking in esoteric jargon. Or, of course it was the developers’ fault for being mired in the practicalities of their profession, specifically in the need, above all, to make money. But I don’t think either of these tendencies (certainly in evidence on both sides) are sufficient to explain the disconnect.

Instead, I am coming to believe that game designers and developers, on the whole(some of the august exceptions being right here on TN), are simply not able to see beyond their own way of thinking about MMOGs. I am not chalking it up simply to arrogance (although there is some of that too, especially from some bright lights who clearly have enough going on upstairs to know better). I’m actually suggesting that they are (largely) incapable of thinking outside the box (to use a well-overworn phrase). This should not be seen, however, as some devastating slam on them  — all people, in all places (though I would suggest particularly those enculturated into heavily technical professions) have trouble looking at things from another point of view, and this group is really not so different. But it was still a bit surprising, especially given, in Eric’s and Raph’s cases, their stated interest in academic research.

Here is what I wrote on the backchannel a month ago when the topic was the related issue of developers and their attitude toward the content contributions of their player-base:

But the designer arrogance goes deeper than that, I’d say. This kind of elitist characterization [of users as lacking in skill] itself rests on a rather narrow conception of what “content” is. This is an attitude (deeper than that, it’s a disposition) which I’d suggest is rooted in developer practice generally, and computer games developer practice specifically. It is a view which recognizes that which is scripted, modeled, or otherwise generated according to the practice of software development as seemingly both the (only) site of creativity and (therefore) the ultimate locus of value. Other kinds of (creative) human activity vanish from its radar screen.

This is an argument that forms part of a chapter I’ve written for a volume I’m co-editing  with Sandra Braman (Command Lines) that is currently under review, and there the specific example is Second Life and the challenges that the varieties of user content therein make to the multiple ideas about content held by the different teams within Linden Lab. But GDC led me to see this claim as more applicable here as well.

The best way to put the assertion (and this is all it is at this point; and again, please keep in mind that there are a number of familiar exceptions) is that the practice of game software development generates a way of seeing and defining problems (as essentially precise, logical, and algorithmic), and creating solutions (through linear, text-defined code) that makes other ways of accounting for what happens in VWs seem at worst  nonsensical and at best irrelevant or quixotic.

Here is just one quick example of this kind of disposition in action: Billmonk, which Constance posted about here. The site promises to help you keep track of your obligations throughout your social network precisely (using any of a number of imaginable currencies). It is double-entry bookeeping for your friendships, and thereby prompts you to conceive of these obligations in exact terms. This is a perfect example of a code-based solution to a code-defined problem: People’s moral obligations are essentially precise and monetary, and they therefore need a precise tool to manage them. (And this approach is not just applied externally; within software companies one frequently sees similar efforts to address organizational issues with precise and enumerated systems that can be, above all, measured.) Heather Kelly, one of the developers on a panel on Monday asked a great question about game development that she hoped researchers could help answer: Why does money trump everything? The answer lies in the remarkably good ‘fit’ between the market and code, and in the existence of a lot of well-trained people who can find ways to exploit it.

I submit for your comments the idea that the reason many developers have a hard time finding anything of value not only from researchers, but often from their own players, is that they are, in effect, seeing a different world, all the time. An optimistic disposition — a faith, even — in technology and code-based problem solving runs deep in the technology and software development community (see, for example, Gary Lee Downey’s ethnography of CAD/CAM engineering, The Machine in Me), and it hampers developers’ ability to recognize the range of content and community creation (very broadly defined) by users as well as the fruits of the well-established but different methodologies and concepts of researchers.

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