Chefs, creativity, diversity, and our old friend risk

I’m on the outbound leg of a trip from the US to Sweden for the Sweden Game Conference. On the plane from Chicago to Frankfurt I watched the movie “Chef” again. It’s a small but worthwhile movie directed by and starring Jon Favreau. He plays an accomplished chef who is sick and tired of having to cook the same old menu over and over again. He’s lorded over by his money-guy who just wants butts-in-seats and for the chef to give people the mainstream fare they want. This results in a disastrous review, and the chef eventually flips out and leaves. He then goes on a journey of self (and family) discovery, and ends up  opening a small food truck that gathers a big online following.

So you can see, this is really a post-Iron Man/Avengers movie about making movies. It suits the making of games equally well — with the exception of the “all’s well that ends well” ending that most movie and game creators don’t experience.

Which brings me to this article from the Guardian. I fully agree that our range of “acceptable” game genres has narrowed to the point that our diversity issues go far, far beyond “we don’t have enough women represented in games.”  The result of this is that I often don’t find much that’s really interesting to play — and those games that do catch my imagination (and dollars) are often the smaller indie efforts – FTL, Banished, Sunless Sea, Prune, and most recently Kings Quest, which at least feels like an indie effort (which is an accomplishment for the developers in today’s environment).

Like many others, I believe that we are far too insular in many parts of game development, and that increasing our underheard voices (including but not only women) has been a distressing serial failure. As the Guardian article points out though, our lack of diversity extends far beyond how women are represented in games or how many women we have in leadership positions in game development. This narrowing extends well into the kinds of games that get made — and thus the kinds of games that get played. The developers often serve a narrow audience, which further narrows the demographic pool of people who are interested in game development, which sets off a vicious cycle.

In the middle of this though is the problem that game developers, like anyone else, want to be paid for their work. Absent a wealthy and disinterested patron (please let me know if you find one of those), being paid requires running a business — and games are most definitely a business. Businesses are necessarily risk averse; the chances of complete failure are just too high otherwise. Creativity and diversity are inherently risky. Therefore most successful game companies will avoid creativity and diversity as much as possible, and in doing so end up contributing to the (at best) reluctant relationship with diversity, and the narrowing palette of game genres deemed worthy of consideration.

TL;DR: We want to be creative and diverse, but all the necessities of making games professionally are set against this.

What to do about this? I don’t know. I don’t have any answers.

I have a few hopes and hypotheses: for example that as we increase the diversity in the pool of developers, we’ll find new ways to make games without increasing our risk — and that maybe, just maybe, some of the wildly successful game companies we see today will look past their IPO or current stock price (I can dream) and actually invest a certain amount of their healthy profits on on-going,long-term R&D. You know, the kinds of things that fail a lot, but eventually give us iPhones, self-driving cars, or the ability to choose from dozens of movies on a trans-Atlantic flight — the very kinds of investment most game companies have little interest in making.

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