Digital Gaming Upgrade and Recovery: Enrolling Memories and Technologies as a Strategy for the Future.

Daniel Ashton

Abstract


Introduction

The tagline for the 2008 Game On exhibition at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image in Melbourne invites visitors to “play your way through the history of videogames.” The Melbourne hosting follows on from exhibitions that have included the Barbican (London), the Royal Museum (Edinburgh) and the Science Museum (London). The Game On exhibition presents an exemplary instance of how digital games and digital games culture are recovered, organised and presented. The Science Museum exhibition offered visitors a walkthrough from the earliest to the latest consoles and games (Pong to Wii Sports) with opportunities for game play framed by curatorial plaques. This article will explore some of the themes and narratives embodied within the exhibition that see digital games technologies enrolled within a media teleology that emphasises technological advancement and upgrade. 

Narratives of Technological Upgrade

The Game On exhibition employed a “social contextualisation” approach, connecting digital gaming developments with historical events and phenomena such as the 1969 moon landing and the Spice Girls. Whilst including thematic strands such as games and violence and games in education, the exhibition’s chronological ordering highlighted technological advancement.  In doing so, the exhibition captured a broader tension around celebrating past technological advancement in gaming, whilst at the same time emphasising the quaint shortfalls and looking to future possibilities.  

That technological advancements stand out, particularly as a means of organising a narrative of digital gaming, resonates with Stephen Kline, Nick Dyer-Withford and Greig de Peuter’s analysis of digital gaming as a “perpetual innovation economy.” For Kline et al., corporations “devote a growing share of their resources to the continual alteration and upgrading of their products” (66). Technological upgrade and advancement were described by the Game On curator as an engaging aspect of the exhibition:

When we had a BBC news presenter come in, she was talking about ‘here we have the PDP 1 and here I have the Nintendo DS’. She was just sort of comparing and contrasting. I know certainly that journalists were very keen on: ‘yeah, but how much processing power does the PDP 1 have?’, ‘what does it compare to today?’ – and it is very hard to compare.  How do you compare Space War on the PDP 1 with something that runs on your mobile phone? They are very different systems. (Lee)

This account of journalistic interest in technological progression and the curator’s subsequent interpretation raise a significant tension around understanding digital gaming. The concern with situating past gaming technologies and comparing capacities and capabilities, emphasises both the fascination with advancement and technological progress in the field and how the impressiveness of this advancement depends on remembering what has come before.

Questions of remembering, recovering and forgetting are clear in the histories that console manufacturers offer when they describe past innovation and pioneering developments. For example, the company history provided by Nintendo on its website is exclusively a history of games technologies with no reference to the proceeding business of playing-card games from the late nineteenth century. Its website-published history only starts with the 1985 release of the NES (Nintendo Entertainment System), “an instant hit [that] over the course of the next two years, it almost single-handedly revitalized the video game industry” (Nintendo, ‘History’), and thereby overlooks the earlier 1983 less successful Famicom system.  Past technologies are selectively remembered and recovered as part of the foundations for future success. This is a tension, that can be unpacked in a number of ways, across current industry transformations and strategies that potentially erase the past whilst simultaneously seeking to recover it as part of an evidence-base for future development. The following discussion develops an analysis of how digital gaming history is recovered and constructed.

Industry Wind Change and Granny on the Wii

There is “unease, almost embarrassment”, James Newman suggests, “about the videogames industry within certain quarters of the industry itself” (6). Newman goes on to suggest:

Various euphemisms have passed into common parlance, all seemingly motivated by a desire to avoid the use of the word ‘game’ and perhaps even ‘computer’, thereby adding a veneer of respectability, distancing the products and experiences from the childish pursuits of game, play and toys, and downplaying the technology connection with its unwanted resonances of nerds in bedrooms hunched over ZX Spectrums and Commodore 64s and the amateurism of hobbyist production. (6-7)

The attempted move away from the resonances of “nerds in bedrooms” has been a strategic decision for Nintendo especially. This is illustrated by the naming of consoles: ‘family’ in Famicom, ‘entertainment’ in NES and, more recently, the renaming of the Wii from ‘Revolution’. The seventh generation Nintendo Wii console, released in November and December 2006, may be been seen as industry leading in efforts to broaden gaming demographics. In describing the console for instance, Satoru Iwata, the President of Nintendo, stated, “we want to appeal to mothers who don't want consoles in their living rooms, and to the elderly and to young women. It’s a challenge, like trying to sell cosmetics to men” (Edge Online). This position illustrates a digital games industry strategy to expand marketing to demographic groups previously marginalised.

A few examples from the marketing and advertising campaigns for the Nintendo Wii help to illustrate this strategy. The marketing associated with the Wii can be seen as part of a longer lineage of Nintendo marketing with Kline et al. suggesting, “it was under Nintendo’s hegemony that the video game industry began to see the systematic development of a high-intensity marketing apparatus, involving massive media budgets, ingenious event marketing, ground breaking advertising and spin off merchandising” (118). The “First Experiences” show on the Wii website mocks-up domestic settings as the backdrop to the Wii playing experience to present an ideal, potential Wii-play scenario. These advertisements can be seen to position the player within an imagined home and game-play environment and speak for the Wii. As Keith Grint and Steve Woolgar suggest, “technology does not speak for itself but has to be spoken for” (32). As part of their concern with addressing, “the particular regime of truth which surrounds, upholds, impales and represents technology” (32), Grint and Woolgar “analyse the way certain technologies gain specific attributes” (33). Across advertisements for the Wii there are a range of domestic environments and groups playing. Of these, the power to bring the family together and facilitate ease of game-play for the novice is most noticeable.  David Morley’s comment that, “‘hi-tech’ discourse is often carefully framed and domesticated by a rather nostalgic vision of ‘family values’” (438) is borne out here.

A television advertisement aired on Nickelodeon illustrates the extent to which the Wii was at the forefront in motioning forward a strategy of industry and gaming inclusiveness around the family: “the 60-second spot shows a dad mistaking the Wii Remote for his television remote control. Dad becomes immersed in the game and soon the whole family joins in” (Nintendo World Report). From confused fathers to family bonding, the Wii is presented as the easy-to-use and accessible device that brings the family together. The father confusing the Wii remote with a television remote control is an important gesture to foreground the accessibility of the Wii remotes compared to previous “joypads”, and emphasize the Wii as an accessible device with no bedroom, technical wizardry required. Within the emerging industry inclusivity agenda, the ‘over technological’ past of digital gaming is something to move away from. The forms of ‘geek’ or ‘hardcore’ that epitomise previous dominant representations of gaming have seemingly stood in the way of the industry reaching its full market potential. This industry wind change is captured in the comments of a number of current industry professionals.

For Matthew Jeffrey, head of European Recruitment for Electronic Arts (EA), speaking at the London Games Week Career Fair, the shift in the accessibility and inclusivity of digital gaming is closely bound up with Nintendo’s efforts and these have impacted upon EA’s strategy:

There is going to be a huge swathe of new things and the great thing in the industry, as you are all easy to identify, is that Nindento DS and the Wii have revolutionised the way we look at the way things are going on.

Jeffrey goes on to add, “hopefully some of you have seen that your eighty year old grandparent is quite happy to play a game”, pointing to the figure of the grandparent as a game-player to emphasise the inclusivity shift within gaming.

Similarly, at Edinburgh Interactive Festival 2007, the CEO of Ubisoft Yves Guillemot in his “The New Generation of Gaming: Facing the Challenges of a Changing Market” speech outlined the development of a family friendly portfolio to please a new, non-gamer population that would include the recruitment of subject experts for “non-game” titles. This instance of the accessibility and inclusivity strategy being advocated is notable for it being part of a keynote speech at the Edinburgh Interactive Festival, an event associated with the Edinburgh festival that is both an important industry gathering and receives mainstream press coverage.  The approaches taken by the other leading console manufacturers Sony and Microsoft, illustrate that whilst this is by no means a total shift, there is nevertheless an industry-wide engagement. The ‘World of Playstation: family and friends’ for example suggests that, “with PlayStation, games have never been more family-friendly” and that “you can even team up as a family to challenge your overseas relatives to a round of online quizzing over the  PLAYSTATION Network” (Playstation).

What follows from these accounts and transformations is a consideration of where the “geeky” past resides in the future of gaming as inclusive and accessible. Where do these developments leave digital gaming’s “subcultural past” (“subcultural” as it now becomes even within the games industry), as the industry forges on into mainstream culture? Past digital games technologies are clearly important in indicating technological progression and advancement, but what of the bedroom culture of gaming? How does “geek game culture” fit within a maturing future for the industry?

Bedroom Programmers and Subcultural Memories

There is a tension between business strategy directed towards making gaming accessible and thereby fostering new markets, and the games those in industry would design for people like themselves. This is not to deny the willingness or commitment of games developers to work on a variety of games, but instead to highlight transformation and tension. In their research into games development, Dovey and Kennedy suggest that, the “generation, now nearing middle-age and finding themselves in the driving seat of cultures of new media, have to reconcile a subcultural history and a dominant present” (145). Pierre Bourdieu’s account of symbolic capital is influential in tracing this shift, and Dovey and Kennedy note Bourdieu’s comment around, “the subjective image of the occupational project and the objective function of the occupation” (145). This shift is highly significant for ways of understanding maturation and inclusivity strategies within digital gaming.

Bourdieu’s account of the “conservative functions attached” to an occupation for Dovey and Kennedy:

Precisely describes the tensions between designers’ sense of themselves as ‘outsiders’ and rebels (‘the subjective image of the occupational project’) on the one hand and their position within a very tight production machine (‘the objective function of the occupation’) on the other. (145)

I would suggest the “production machine”, that is to say the broader corporate management structures by which games development companies are increasingly operated, has a growing role in understandings of the industry. This approach was implicit in Iwata’s comments on selling cosmetics to men and broadening demographics, and Jeffrey’s comments pointing to how EA’s outlook would be influenced by the accessibility and inclusivity strategy championed by Nintendo.

It may be suggested that as the occupational project of gaming is negotiated and shifts towards an emphasis on accessibility and inclusivity, the subjective image must be similarly reoriented. That previous industry models are being replaced, is highlighted in this excerpt from a Managing Director of a ‘leisure software’ company in the Staying ahead report on the creative industries by the Work Foundation:

The first game that came from us was literally two schoolchildren making a game in their bedroom … the game hadn’t been funded, but made for fun … As those days are gone, the biggest challenges nowadays for game developers are finding funding that doesn’t impinge on creativity, and holding onto IP [intellectual property], which is so important if you want a business that is going to have any value. (27)

This account suggests a hugely important transition from bedroom production, the days that ‘are gone’, towards Intellectual Property-aware production. The creative industries context for these comments should not be overlooked and is insightful for further recognising the shifts and negotiations taking place in digital gaming, notably, around the maturation of the games industry.

The creative industries context is made explicit in creative industries reports such as Staying ahead and in the comments of Shaun Woodward (former Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport) in a keynote speech at the 2006 British Video Games Academy Awards, in which he referred to the games industry as “one of our most important creative industries”. The forms of collaboration between, for instance, The Independent Games Developers Association (TIGA) and the Department of Culture, Media and Sport (see Gamasutra), further indicate the creative industries context to the maturation of the UK games industry.

The creative industries context also presents the anchor through which tensions between a subcultural history and professional future and the complex forms of recovery can be more fully engaged with. The Game On curator’s indication that making comparisons between different games technologies systems was a delicate balance insightfully provides cautions to any attempt to mark out a strict departure from the ‘subcultural’ to the ‘professional’. Clearly put, the accessibility and inclusivity strategy that shifts away from geek culture and technical wizardry remains in conversation with geek elements as the foundation for the future.

As technologies are recovered within a lineage of technological development and upgrade, the geek bedroom culture of gaming is almost mythologized to offer the industry history creative credentials and future potential.

Recovering and Combining: Technologies and Memories for a Professional Future

Emphasised thus far has been a shift from the days gone by of bedroom programming towards an inclusive and accessible professional and mature future. This is a teleological shift in the sense that the latest technological developments can be located within a past replete with innovation and pioneering spirit. In relation to the Wii for example, a Nintendo employee states:

Nintendo is a company where you are praised for doing something different from everyone else. In this company, when an individual wants to do something different, everyone else lends their support to help them overcome any hurdles. I think this is how we made the challenge of Wii a possibility. (Nintendo)

Nintendo’s history, alluded to here and implicit throughout the interviews with Nintendo staff from which this comment is taken, and previous and existing ‘culture’ of experimentation is offered here as the catalyst and enabler of the Wii. A further example may be offered in relation to Nintendo’s competitor Sony.

A hugely significant transformation in digital gaming, further to the accessibility and inclusivity agenda, is the ability of players to develop their own games using games engines. For Phil Harrison (Sony), gaming technology is creating a, “‘virtual community’ of collaborative digital production, marking a return to the ‘golden age of video game development, which was at home, on your own with a couple of friends, designing a game yourself’” (Kline et al., 204). Bedroom gaming that in the earlier comments was regarded as days gone by for professionals, takes on a new significance as a form of user-engagement. The previous model of bedroom production, now outmoded compared to industry production, is relocated as available for users and recovered as the ‘golden age of gaming’. It is recovered as a model for users to aspire to. The significance of this for business strategy is made clear by Kline et al. who suggest that, “thousands of bright bulbs have essentially become Sony’s junior development community” (204).

An obsolete model of past production is recovered and deployed within a future vision of the games industry that sees users participating and extending forms of games engagement and consumption. Similarly, the potential of ‘bedroom’ production and its recovery in relation to growth areas such as games for mobile phones, is carefully framed by Intellectual Property Rights (Edwards and Coulton). In this respect, forms of bedroom production are carefully situated in terms of industry strategies.

The “Scarce Talent Seminars” as part of the London Games Week 2008 “Skills Week” further illustrate this continual recovery of ‘past’, or more accurately alternative, forms of production in line with narratives of professionalisation and industry innovation. The seminars were stated as offering advice on bridging the gap between the “bedroom programmer” and the “professional developer”. The discourse of ‘talent’ framed this seminar, and the bedroom programmer is held up as being (not having) raw talent with creative energies and love and commitment for gaming that can be shaped for the future of the industry. This discourse of bedroom programmers as talent emphasises the industry as an enabler of individual talent through access to professional development and technological resources. This then sits alongside the recovery of historical narratives in which bedroom gaming culture is celebrated for its pioneering spirit, but is ultimately recovered in terms of current achievements and future possibilities.

“Skills Week” and guidance for those wanting to work in the industry connects with the recovery of past technologies and ways of making games visible amongst the potential industry workers of the future – students. The professional future of the industry is intertwined with graduates with professional qualifications. Those qualifications need not be, and sometimes preferably should not be, in ‘gaming’ courses. What is important is the love of games and this may be seen through the appreciation of gaming’s history. During research conducted with games design students in higher education courses in the UK, many students professed a love of games dating back to the Spectrum console in the 1980s. There was legitimacy and evidence of professing long-seated interests in consoles. At the same time as acknowledging the significant, embryonic power these consoles had in stimulating their interests, many students engaged in learning games design skills with the latest software packages. Similarly, they engaged in bedroom design activities themselves, as in the days gone by, but mainly as training and to develop skills useful to securing employment within a professional development studio. Broadly, students could be said to be recovering both technologies and ways of working that are then enrolled within their development as professional workers of the future.

The professional future of the gaming industry is presented as part of a teleological trajectory that mirrors the technological progression of the industry’s upgrade culture. The days of bedroom programming are cast as periods of incubation and experimentation, and part of the journey that has brought gaming to where it is now. Bedroom programming is incorporated into the evidence-base of creative industries policy reports. Other accounts of bedroom programming, independent production and attempts to explore alternative publishing avenues do not feature as readily.

In the 2000 Scratchware Manifesto for example, the authors declare, “the machinery of gaming has run amok”, and say, “Basta! Enough!” (Scratchware). The Scratchware Manifesto puts forward Scratchware as a response: “a computer game, created by a microteam, with pro-quality art, game design, programming and sound to be sold at paperback prices” (Scratchware). The manifesto goes on to say, “we need Scratchware because there is more than one way to develop good computer games” (Scratchware, 2000). Using a term readily associated with the Zapatista Army of National Liberation, the Scratchware Manifesto called for a revolution in gaming and stated, “we will strive for […] originality over the tried and tested” (Scratchware). These are the experiences and accounts of the games industry that seem to fall well outside of the technological and upgrade focused agenda of professional games development.

The recovery and framing of past technologies and industry practices, in ways supportive to current models of technological upgrade and advancement, legitimises these models and marginalizes others. A eulogized and potentially mythical past is recovered to point to cultures of innovation and creative vibrancy and to emphasize current and future technological prowess. We must therefore be cautious of the instrumental dangers of recovery in which ‘bright bulbs’ are enrolled and alternative forms of production marginalised.

As digital gaming establishes a secure footing with increased markets, the growing pains of the industry can be celebrated and recovered as part of the ongoing narratives of the industry. Recovery is vital to make sense of both the past and future. Within digital gaming, the PDP-1 and the bedroom geek both exist in the past, present and future as part of an industry strategy and trajectory that seeks to move away from them but also relies on them. They are the legitimacy, the evidence and the potential for affirming industry models. The extent to which other narratives can be told and technologies and memories recovered as alternative forms of evidence and potential is a question I, and hopefully others, will leave open.

References

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Keywords


Digital gaming; Creative Industries; Subcultural memory.



Copyright (c) 2008 Daniel Ashton

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