There was a bit of a kerfuffle yesterday morning around the publication of an article on The Financial Times from one of the Game City Prize judges. To be fair, the kerfuffle didn’t come as a great surprise. That said, I still found the response massively disappointing.
Right, first up, here’s the piece in question if you want to go off and have a read.
I had never played a video game in my life. I had never even touched a controller, except periodically to confiscate my son’s and hide it at the back of my sock drawer.
And that’s where it begins. We have one person who’s never played a videogame in her life being given a pile of videogames and asked to play them and share her thoughts on them. And indeed, she does just this. There’s idle musings (boiled down for the sake of making an article readable by humans, obviously) on Fez, Mass Effect 3, Super Mario Bros 3d Land, Catherine (“I don’t find repeatedly being pushed to my death by a giant bottom at all enjoyable”), Proteus, Journey and Johann Sebastian Joust.
Now, for extra bonus laugh points do read the comments where someone likely entirely seriously recommends that if she has an interest in history perhaps she could go and give Europa Universalis III a blast. This is Europa Universalis III:
Now don’t get me wrong, I’m a closet fan of Paradox’s spreadsheet within a spreadsheet within a spreadsheet within a spreadsheet within a spreadsheet within a map school of strategy design and having spent 30 years playing videogames, I’m not afraid of them either.
I am however not ever going to recommend this to anybody who’s never played a videogame before because it’s a fucking spreadsheet within a spreadsheet within a spreadsheet within a spreadsheet within a spreadsheet within a map and I don’t want to be responsible for terrifying someone like that.
Anyway, moving swiftly along because dwelling on the lack of self awareness in some quarters of videogaming is an entire book really and back onto… oh. Right. Anyway.
The response was curiously vitriolic from some quarters of the Twittersphere. Accusations of her being ignorant from one corner, that the finalists were being thrown under a bus from another, to the fairly oft repeated cry that we don’t need to go out to the mainstream looking for acceptance so fuck this noise up a fire engine or something. Even some rumblings that the GameCity Prize was getting it all wrong.
All told, a fairly typical reaction to an attack piece published in the not-we media.
But hang on, this piece wasn’t an attack piece. No finalists were thrown under a bus and no-one went begging for cultural acceptance here. So the fuck, right? The fuck?
First up, there seems to be a general misunderstanding of what the Game City Prize actually is. It is not like the IGF, it is not like The Golden Joysticks, it is not like the VGA, it isn’t even like the Indie Visibility Awards or any other videogame award thing one might submit a game to or find themselves being nominated for. The Game City Prize isn’t a prize for finding the best game, it’s not even really a prize for finding the most culturally important videogame or any stuff like that. And I understand that just by having “a prize” that brings with it a certain expected context, a certain mindset but forget that. It doesn’t apply here.
The Game City Prize is about opening a conversation, it’s about lines of communication, it’s about talking about videogames and importantly talking about videogames to people outside of our cultural hole. The prize itself is a wonderful trojan horse to getting mainstream coverage (when was the last time you saw Fez on the BBC news or talked about in the Financial Times?) but it serves a greater purpose. It gets people talking. Here’s Iain on the matter for some clarity:
[The prize is...] 3. Not about games. It’s really not. The driving motivation of the prize was always intended to be that it wouldn’t be about the games themselves per se – but about the conversations that the playing of them might inspire.
That’s super important to consider here. No-one is trying to crown the best game ever of the year 2012 or any such thing, it’s one way of getting people talking about videogames and what they mean to them. Maybe, with stuff like the judging pool, widening the understanding of what videogames are also. Not just as an education for those who are the not-we but for us also, maybe it’ll give us a better insight into what videogames are and why people stay out of it or steer clear.
It isn’t going cap in hand to the not-we and saying LIKE US, PLEASE. WE NEED YOUR APPROVAL. Nothing like that. That’d be rubbish anyway, we don’t need approval, they don’t need to give us their approval and would look absolutely befuddled anyway as to why we’d want that as Ebert so often does. It’s just kinda finding an in to talking to folks and maybe we might find an in for them into our culture somewhere too if things work out well.
It’s about the journey to the prize and what that brings, not the prize itself. That seems like a fairly good thing to me and at worst, no-one gets hurt for trying and we all had a jolly little chat.
In order for this to work well in any way obviously it has to involve people who aren’t experienced with videogames at all. Otherwise we’re just talking amongst ourselves and we do that plenty on a daily basis.
So aye, that’s what the Game City Prize is and what it isn’t. It’s not even something you submit to as a developer, anyone can make a submission to the longlist and discuss their reasons for nominating. There were three games I wanted to nominate myself but I eventually settled on just one at the risk of being a dominant voice. (Which perhaps is a weird thing but I think it’s important to let other people have their say on what videogames they think are worth folk’s time. Sometimes. Unless they’re nominating [snip -Ed].)
But let’s get back to the article in question and the reactions and more to the point how utterly point missing many were. There were two big things to take away from the FT piece and both seem to have gotten lost in the noise. The first is the reason why the author of the piece accepted the judging position.
I said yes, though not because I particularly care whether there is a cultural conversation about video games or not. The conversation I’m after is even more elusive: I simply wanted to be able to talk to my sons again.
Sorry, let’s just do that again.
I simply wanted to be able to talk to my sons again.
Because whilst we often talk of this being the first generation to entirely grow up with games, how often do we stop to consider the generation that didn’t and how they might feel about our hobby? We only seem to do this when the media launch their full on attacks, discussing murder simulators or TERRORFACE:THE GAME FOUND IN SERIAL KILLERS BAG. CARJACKER KILLS SEVEN IN GRAND NICK CARS RAMPAGE. CALL OF GUNNYMAN CAUSES AIRPORT TOILET EXPLOSION. Or whatever.
Sometimes maybe we just sit there and think “well, they’ll be dead soon” and we can inherit the world afterwards or something. I don’t think it’s entirely controversial to point out how little gamers tend to consider the not-we in general, anyway.
It’s also in this light that it’s easier to understand why people react so badly to any perceived attack or dismissal, it’s like we’re trained into it. Maintream publication + videogames = DEFENCES UP! CHARGE! because we know they’re likely going to accuse us all of being baby killers or something. Which is all the more reason that we get talking, yeah?
But here we are with someone accepting the challenge of being a judge for the Game City Prize (where being a judge consists of getting a load of games to play for a bit and having a Joust party and then having to discuss how they felt about those games) to try and understand a generation that she wasn’t a part of, a culture she wasn’t a part of. At this point leveling ignorance is merely pointing out the explicitly obvious and attacking seems counter productive in the extreme.
She’s not trying to be part of our culture, just to understand what we see in this big old messy universe of videogame entertainment that we indulge in.
So, consoles in place, games delivered, game time spent. Naturally enough under such circumstances, results vary.
There’s the comedy of a situation I’m sure many of us have been in, the frustration of trying to educate someone on how to play a game whilst watching them “playing it wrong” as described in the brief write up on Super Mario 3d Land, Fez is described as “Surprisingly enjoyable. Great colours.”, Mass Effect 3 as unsurprisingly distant a touchstone to someone with no feet in nerd culture whatsoever but still deemed fairly harmless all told, the frustrations that come with videogame failure writ large in the Catherine segment (an issue hardly consigned to the not-we) and the magic of both Journey and Proteus duly understood. Johann Sebastian Joust seems to have caused no ripples either.
All told, hardly the most out and out offensive on videogames. More so when you consider the outcome:
Despite my inability to play half the games, I’ve still learnt a good deal from them. For a start they aren’t all evil. Some are fun, imaginative and even beautiful.
Surely this is what we want people to see? This is what we see after all. This is the second big takeaway from the piece right here.
We don’t just see the hyperviolent deathogeddon criminal-making shitfest certain quarters of the easy-story sensationalist media try and foist onto the world, we see the beauty, we see the nuances, we see the breadth and depth of videogames and just now, thanks to a small package of games and a party and a willingness to engage with someone who had no prior interest or experience with games, someone else can see that too.
Now one more person knows that videogames aren’t murder simulators and one mother from a culture divorced from ours has a better understanding of what her sons see in videogames.
That’s the real Game City Prize. One more to the cause, sisters. One more to the cause.
We’ve just won the jackpot and we can do it again. Let’s do that. Let’s do it again. Let’s do it again lots. And let’s not attack people or dismiss them quickly when they’re just trying to understand what we see. It does us an immense disservice and we can all be better than that.
 I think perhaps it’s behind a paywall for those of international waters so apologies if you can’t access it. Blame the publishers of the FT, not my doing yer honour. I mean ffs, I cut and paste a line from it and I get berated by the text I asked to copy injecting a moan about not wanting me to cut and paste the article. Tiresome, tiresome, stuff. So SORRY.