Computer Games: Good Game – Bad Game?


Jeremiah Diephuis, an instructor in the Media Technology & Design program at the Upper Austria University of Applied Sciences’ Hagenberg Campus, and Stefan Schraml, an interaction & interface designer in the computer game industry, collaborated with associates in the Linz gamer scene to launch GameStage. In this interview, the two game experts talk about the past and the future of computer gaming, their exhibition at the Ars Electronica Festival, and the game events coming up at FamilyDays in November.

At the AEC’s first GameStage in March 2013 (Photo: Radiated Pixel)

What is GameStage@AEC?

S. S.: We started GameStage over two years ago in the form of small-scale events at KAPU and KunstRaum Goethestraße; we also played Tabakfabrik once. And this led to cooperation with the Ars Electronica Center.
J. D.: GameStage is a setting for networking, a way to bring together producers and users. In computer gaming, there are no opportunities like those that exist in the art world—like an exhibition in a gallery. GameStage offers a chance for students and small firms in this sector to showcase what they’re doing and to get feedback from the community. Even a work-in-progress can make a public debut of sorts here. In this region, there are a surprising number of firms that have achieved international success but are pretty much unknown in Austria.

At the Ars Electronica Festival, you’re involved in an exhibition about the development of computer games over their 40-year history. What’s there to see?

S. S.: This isn’t only a matter of conserving the games themselves but also the overall experience. That’s why we’re showing old computer games in their original context—original media on original devices. In several cases, we’ll be juxtaposing two options: the original setup and an emulated version in which the old game runs on a modern processor with a modern mouse, keyboard and flat panel display.
J. D.: Andranik Ghalustians, probably one of the world’s leading game collectors, is also involved in GameStage and has made a lot of old devices available for the event. So this makes it possible to compare the experience. Is this really produced only by the idea of the game, by the graphics? Or does it actually come from the form of the interaction, how the joystick implements an action or maybe even the latency that’s an outcome of the old hardware? Of course, this is also a means of reliving those first encounters with a computer game that you had back then as a 10- or 12-year-old.
S. S.: There are even lots of members of our generation who’ve never seen these devices. Having a console like this wasn’t something taken for granted then. People can check out an incredible array of equipment that you’ll never see anywhere else. This exhibition is also designed to show computer games’ roots and development. Some experimental stuff that turned out to be a total flop then is starting to work really well now—for example, there was Virtual Boy, a three-dimensional Gameboy, complete lunacy in 1995, technically horrendous. Now, they’re actually coming out with Oculus Rift, which, in a couple of years, just might develop into the mainstream of gaming—20 years later.

Do people today like different kinds of computer games than people in the past?

S. S.: That’s hard to say because everything has changed so dramatically. Technological development is so fast.
J. D.: But even 10- and 12-year-old kids still know about Super Mario and Yoshi and Sony. One of my students said to me once: “I’d like to design a really cool game, like Mario. Actually, there hasn’t been a decent game that’s come out since then.”
S. S.: Of course, that could also have to do with the parent generation.
J. D.: But you can also see this in the casual-type games we have on our cell phone or tablet, that jump-and-runs and 2-D graphics are back again. Of course, they’ve enhanced the aesthetics, but the mechanics of the game haven’t changed all that much.
S. S.: Definitely. There are mechanics that have been added but the basics remain.

Computer games are fascinating even—or especially—for kids. (Photo: Teresa Timelthaler)

In November, GameStage will coincide with FamilyDays. Do these two really go together?

S. S.: GameStage isn’t an insider event for game developers; the target audience is users, computer gamers. Part of our mission is to educate people about media, so we want to demonstrate what this medium is all about, and showcase computer games’ diversity. On this weekend, there will be discussions of both the good and the purportedly bad sides of computer games.
J. D.: This will also be an informational event at which parents can get answers to their questions and deal with their fears. On one hand, we’ll be hearing from scientists and journalists, who’ll be offering insights into the psychology and sociology of computer games. On the other hand, young people will have their say too—after all, they’re also experts in this area to a certain extent—and they can show games to their parents. At the “Sly Fox Academy” we hold during summer break on the Hagenberg Campus, we designed games together with 10-12-year-olds, and it’s surprising how much these kids already know on this subject and how quickly they master the developer tools.

In what direction will computer games develop in the future?

J. D.: Statistics show that games develop in the direction of the mainstream. It’ll still take a lot of work until they’re accepted as a cultural medium, but we’ve already reached a point at which they’re not for entertainment only. They now serve many different purposes—there are so-called serious games that are educational, and those that are meant as works of art or as social criticism. And then there’s a persuasive domain, in which a game is used to get across a message—for instance, of a political nature—in order to propagate a particular point of view. A relatively recent development is the emergence of news games that deliver a realistic experience of an actual event—for instance, the Haiti Earthquake. The player can choose from among three roles: journalist, victim and aid worker. And you’re confronted by decisions—for example, do you want to try to save some of your household possessions, or would it be better to go downtown and seek shelter? Once you make up your mind, you view actual video footage that corresponds to this earthquake situation. But the point of this isn’t just to get informed; it’s to be able to relate to these issues and develop some empathy for them. You gain first-hand experience, and this can be really convincing.
S. S.: The big kick you get from computer games has always been the interactivity. Film is wonderful, but it’s consumed relatively passively, whereas in a game, you can more or less actively intervene in what happens. And there’s a whole arsenal of reward strategies to make it interesting. Now, games are breaking out of the narrow confines of entertainment. People are constantly endowing stuff with game elements to make something more interesting. Feedback from actions simply appeals to people. Here, interaction design and game design merge very quickly. I personally believe that games will pervade all aspects of life. It’s a very young medium; a lot is going to happen. It will also hopefully become a medium for grown-ups. At the moment, the prime target audience consists of 18-25-year-old males, and this is also why shooter games dominate the public perception. In reality, though, the area of influence is already much greater. All that’s missing is content that’s of interest to other groups. That will come for sure.

Jeremiah Diephuis is instructor in the Media Technology & Design program at the Upper Austria University of Applied Sciences’ Hagenberg Campus.

Stefan Schraml is an interaction & interface designer in the computer game industry.

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