Hello everyone, Certis here. Sway emailed me to geek out a little about meeting Sid Meier at a book reading a few days ago. He really should have known better because I immediately demanded an article about his experience and what the authors of the book had to say. The full title of the book in question is SMARTBOMB: The Quest for Art, Entertainment, and Big Bucks in the Videogame Revolution and it's all about gaming and how society views it.
Read on for the article and a big, big thanks to Sway for coming out of seclusion to grace us with some of his excellent writing! We miss you, homie.
Last night, Heather Chaplin and Aaron Ruby, the authors of SMARTBOMB: The Quest for Art, Entertainment, and Big Bucks in the Videogame Revolution, stopped by Atomic Books in Baltimore, MD to read a little from the book and talk games. To add a little insider insight into the discussion, as well as acting as an additional audience attractor, Sid Meier of Firaxis sat in on the session. I braved the recent cold snap to walk over to Atomic Books just so I could share this with you. Actually I had no idea I'd be writing this, but Certis asked nicely when he found out I went.
Benn and Rachel welcome you into their store like they're inviting you into their living room, "there are refreshments downstairs so help yourself." There were about twenty people of all ages milling around the store. There were some obvious gamers and I overheard snatches of conversation about the impending Xbox 360 launch. I had a feeling it might get crowded so I snuck in and grabbed a chair. Sure enough, it was a tight fit, and latecomers were left standing against the bookshelves and tables that had been pushed aside for the event. Sid and the authors headed up front to sit at a little table facing the audience and the evening got underway.
In the interest of poor reporting and full disclosure I need to tell you that I've not read the book. Aaron explained that he wanted to write a book that introduced people to the whole concept of videogames, who is making them, who is playing them, and why, and why you should care. He said that videogames are thirty years old now and the media is only just now reporting on them. I'm not even sure that's true yet. The stories I see still focus on controversy or some bizarre aspect of gaming culture that only serves to increase the ignorance about videogames. Smartbomb (I'm going to punctuate it like that now because caps are for NEWBIES) is here to hopefully repair some of that damage and educate those who don't understand the phenomenon with which you're already intimate.
Heather, the self-confessed non-gamer seated in between gamers Sid and Aaron, read a few excerpts. One detailed how videogames differ from media like books and movies in that videogames are a model with which the player can experiment. Books and movies tell you exactly what they were written to tell you, and that's what you get from the experience. Yes, a book or a movie could mean different things to you and someone else, but that occurs outside of the book or movie. What you experience inside a game is very much up to you now that you have been granted control. The other two excerpts focused on two game designers, the first giving insight into Will Wright very cerebral approach to games and the second contrasting CliffyB's more visceral pop star angle. Much of what she read was stuff you and I already know, but it was refreshing to hear it presented matter-of-factly, no judgement being passed one way or another, food for the reader's thought.
After the readings, the floor opened up for questions. Some of the questions that were asked seemed so obvious to me, but many of them came back with follow-up questions. It was after a few of these that I really began to understand why a book like Smartbomb is necessary. We take it for granted that the world knows what videogames are. But, just because there are commercials for RE4 on TV and mothers buy PSPs for their kids, doesn't mean that they know what it all means. In answering the questions, Heather and Aaron shared what they had learned while writing the book and Sid would share his thoughts from inside the industry.
If I were bringing the world of videogames home to meet my parents I would choose Sid to be its spokesperson. He's very down-to-earth and extremely open and passionate about what he does. He was unassuming and eloquent while he explained what his role was and what he found so engaging about games. It served to emphasize what Heather had been reading about, how designers were each very unique within this industry. One of the questions went back to the comparison of literature to videogames. A woman said that she could read a book and feel as though she had learned about the human condition and wondered whether or not videogames could teach us about humanity. Sid said that he thought the desire for interaction was part of human nature. He gave the examples that we watch TV with remotes in our hand and that we no longer listen to entire records, jumping from track to track instead. The analogy that instantly came to me was the experience of going to museums as a kid. When my family would go to a museum, my sister and I would walk along with our parents, giving each exhibit a little face time before wandering to the next. But if there happened to be any exhibit with a button or a lever, we would race each other to get to it first. Buttons are great and all, but the desire wasn't simply to press the button, it was to interact with the exhibit. Thinking about that, it made perfect sense why I like videogames today. The only question is how did videogames lose my sister along the way?
Of course, the standard question about censorship was raised, specifically mentioning "that carjacking game my grandson is always playing". All three people on the panel had very different answers and, to me, this demonstrated why you simply cannot make blanket statements about videogaming. Aaron, clearly a gamer, became very passionate about the problems with legislation and about the assertions of people like Jack Thompson. He explained how parents often don't have enough information about games and end up judging them strictly based on content. He thought it would make more sense to have information about the type of gameplay a game encourages and the type of skills required, citing the differences in content vs. gameplay between GTA3 and Full Spectrum Warrior. Full Spectrum Warrior actually teaches the player how to effectively lay down cover fire and flush enemy combatants from hiding places so you can kill them, which is very different from what GTA3 requires you to learn in order to play the game. Heather, for the most part, let the gamers speak to this question, but admitted to having enjoyed taking a truck out to the 'burbs and backing over little old ladies because she wasn't very good at completing the skill-based missions. Sid spoke as a parent and said that he didn't let his teenage son play because he felt parts of the game were inappropriate for him. Thankfully, these answered seemed to satisfy the crowd and the Q&A session moved on to other topics including modding, designing games to attract more female gamers, and Sid's advice on how to become a game designer (start small and just try designing a game).
Once the questions died down, Sid and the authors stuck around to talk to people for a little while. I hung around long enough to ask Sid to sign my Civ 4 manual, woot. I also asked him about how he decided to do the tutorial for the game because I thought it was a very cool touch. He said it was all pretty much done on the fly shortly before they wrapped up development. They have all the recording equipment at Firaxis so he just read his lines a few times and the developers put it together. I thanked him and slipped out into the cold night air with a smile on my face that probably only you guys could appreciate.