Walkthrough Glasgow: Discussing the positive influence of games

On Monday night Cineworld’s Screen 17 was taken over by a diverse mix of characters. There were journalists, PRs, developers and students that all shared one common bond, they were gamers. And that’s what Walkthrough, a discussion on the positive aspects of gaming for the Scottish Mental Health Arts and Film Festival, was all about: A room of gamers sharing experiences on their common bond from their own unique viewpoints.

Ludometrics chief David Thomson was joined by Dan Bendon, Editor in Chief of Ready Up, and ScottishGames.net founder Brian Baglow to make up the panel of games industry experts. Hosting the event was Eddie Harrison, director of the festival’s film strand. For the discussion each panel member had selected two clips to be played on the cinema screen, these clips provided a launch pad to then talk about a particular theme related to games. Topics included: immersion, community, emotion and gameplay.

Despite not being involved in the industry like the others sharing the stage with him, Eddie kicked off proceedings with a clip of Uncharted 2.  Being a film critic, Eddie said he was drawn to Uncharted’s blend of interactivity and cinema: “It was like a movie I was playing,” he enthused. Eddie also mentioned the problem solving aspect, explaining that much of his time with the game wasn’t spent in solitude, rather he sat with a friend as they worked out the game’s puzzles together. He explained: “The problem solving aspect just caught my imagination.”

From there the conversation shifted to the violence in Uncharted, particularly the sheer numbers killed as the player makes their way through the game. Ready Up’s Dan Beldon highlighted the disparity in coverage between the likes of Call of Duty and its demonisation in many media outlets, and how Uncharted “slipped under the radar of demonisation” despite its moral ambiguity. Dan also highlighted that the mainstream media missed a powerful theme present in Modern Warfare 2: “I’ve never played a game that made me think just how futile war is as Call of Duty. Especially the scene where you, the player, crawl out the tank, this agonising crawl, only to die.”

David Thomson compared the furore over games and their possible effects to that of the reaction to, of all things, crosswords when they first appeared. He said: “In the 1920s when crosswords came along there were all these people demonising them saying that people would just sit there to play them and never do anything else. That was stupid then and this is stupid now.” He drew on a popular topic among academics, that new forms of entertainment and behaviour are very often met with hostility and moral panic.

Brian Baglow was next up with a trailer for PC title Dear Esther. After the trailer Brian described the game as “possibly the most emotive game I have ever played. It’s one of the most engaging and disquieting things I’ve ever picked up.” He went on to state how the title is more of a journey than a game as such, highlighting the feeling of discovery he experienced when playing.  Despite Brian’s enthusiasm for Dear Esther, David Thomson dryly stated “the trailer just bores me to tears. Nothing pulls me in and makes me want to play it”. Which raised a bit of a chuckle from some the audience. He did concede that the game was critically acclaimed and despite his initial view on the trailer he would check it out. None of the other panel members had played Dear Esther but all were at least somewhat intrigued by it.

The trailer triggered memories of DS title Lost in Blue for Dan. Who recalled a train ride to London where he frustratingly tried to get to grips with the game for most of the journey, before giving in on arrival and trading it in at a London game store. Despite some tips shouted from one member of the audience, Dan is unlikely to be going back to it anytime soon.

Brian’s second clip was of the intro to PC strategy game Homeworld, another game that elicited strong emotions from him: “It made me care massively about the ships I had. I became enveloped in the game and cared for every individual ship.” The conversation turned to how games can make the player care for their character or team under their command. Brian told how he would be so involved in the game and caring for his ships that when he lost one, or many, he would become genuinely aggrieved and end up restarting from an old save game.

Dan brought up the newly released XCOM: Enemy Unknown as the most recent example where the player becomes caring and increasingly protective of their squad as they name them. He asked the audience how many named their squad after friends or family, and Brian stated how his son did the same “There’s a Ready Up XCOM team in the office,” Dan said. “And I get these daily updates sent to me about the squad. Everything seemed to be going fine until the other day when the team suffered massive losses. Nearly everyone is dead and I think I’m critically wounded.” While a funny tale, it does highlight the meaning that a player can attach to a character simply by having the opportunity to name them.

Brian brought the conversation back to the Homeworld trailer and the different cinematic techniques used, especially the soundtrack. This then raised the subject of games and art, and the need of some critics and developers to try and see games as art. The strongest response came from David Thomson who stated that people shouldn’t set out to make art but rather create the best thing they possibly can in their field:

“I’m a great believer in just setting out to make the best game you possibly can,” he said. “Some people set out to make games as art, like David Cage, and his games just leave me feeling entirely cold.”

It was then David’s turn to show a clip to the audience and he produced Xbox Live title Quarrel, which he defined as “the game I worked on that I am most proud of”. David told the story of the game’s development, its difficulties and the pleasure he got from seeing the game being played at shows prior to release: “watching people play it is immensely satisfying”.  The panel talked about the social aspect to the game and how gamers would turn to the likes of Quarrel and Uno on their consoles as a way to socially unwind after sessions of multiplayer shooters. Dan also lamented the decline of these kinds of games recently, and hoped they would soon make a return to prominence as they help bring people together to play in a positive way.

Dan was last up and his first clip was of Daigo Umehara’s unbelievable comeback against Justin Wong at the EVO fighting championships in 2004. This prompted a conversation on the fighting game community, which is particularly strong in Glasgow, and how the footage shows the sheer emotion that comes from the crowd: “the crowd was like a football match,” Dan stated.

For Past the Pixels the star of the show was the last video shown. Dan brought a video he had only made at the weekend called ‘ReadyUp Juniors: Minecraft’. The clip was a flythrough of a world that Dan’s young son and friends had made in the game.  A quick scan around the room as the video played showed that many were smiling in genuine awe as they prodded and whispered to those next to them. The structures themselves were quite impressive, but given that they came from a small group of kids that hadn’t even reached double figures in life experience, then the feats seemed all the more inspiring. Dan’s explanation of how seriously the kids treat their world (with committee meetings in houses and strict rulesets) was a fascinating, and uplifting, look at how children interact and cooperate in games. Sadly (for us) the Minecraft Juniors have decided they’re not quite ready to show the world their world on the internet. So those in attendance were particularly lucky to have gotten a glimpse.

Finally, each of our experts summed up on the positive outcomes that playing games can provide. Brian proclaimed games as a medium that “provides something genuinely new and different to any other form of entertainment.” And that the more vociferous critics need to wisen up: “Lumping all videogames together is like lumping all films and TV shows together, it’s not an accurate reflection.”

David’s final words of the night captured the essence of escapism that games provide for so many: “Games are about immersion,” he explained. “It’s about going on a journey or having a story told to you as you play.”

Dan summed up the topic in perhaps the most simple of terms: “Can games have a positive influence? Of course they can. Asking that is like asking ‘is bread nourishing when you eat it?’, it doesn’t need thinking about.”

And after that the audience and speakers made their way to the Cineworld bar for some refreshments and a little more discussion on the medium. Given how positive everyone was after the event, it wouldn’t be surprising if next year’s Scottish Mental Health Arts and Film Festival has an even bigger videogame presence.

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