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Game developers ask tough questions

Few video games make much of a case for being rigorous intellectual exercises, but much thought goes into them, as demonstrated at the Game Developers Conference.

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SAN JOSE, Calif.--Run. Jump. Shoot the thing that moves. Pick up the thing that doesn't move.

Few video games can make much of a case for being rigorous intellectual exercises. But a lot of thought goes into them, as demonstrated by the array of brain-stretching panels and lectures offered throughout the Game Developers Conference here, which concluded Saturday.

Game creators gathered to discuss nearly every aspect of their craft. And while much of the conversation was impenetrably technical--"Implementing Multicolored Volumetric Fog" was the title of one barn-burner--other sessions focused on intriguing, non-geeky questions. Can game qualify as an art form? Why do so few computer games appeal to girls? Can you build redeeming social values into games and still keep them fun?

The last question was the subject of game designer and game guide author Rusel DeMaria's roundtable discussion, "Hit Games with Social Values: What's Stopping You?" Developers were surprisingly tough on themselves, acknowledging that the trigger-happy action games that dominated the industry haven't done much to make this a better planet.

"Most of what we do in games is indulging people's fantasies of power without responsibilities," said one developer, recounting his role in a science fiction game where the goal was planetary-scale genocide.

Yet aside from a few notable exceptions such as "SimCity," games that have tried to have any educational or social value have been boring flops.

"There's a lot of games that purport to do something socially valuable, like education, but they suck," DeMaria said. "They put the message ahead of making a great game."

DeMaria said the key to making games that offer more than fast-twitch entertainment value is knowing how to sneak a message or two into a fun, well-designed game. "My contention is that if we're clever, we can do everything a great game does and still have something to say."

Ernest Adams, a veteran game designer and founder of the International Game Developers Association, also challenged the audience in his lecture, "Will Games Ever Become a Legitimate Art Form?"

Though games share some characteristics of literary art forms, he said, they lack some key elements, including the willingness to make any statement other than "Let's have fun."

"To be art, a work must be more than merely entertaining," he said. "It must contain ideas."

"We work so hard in this industry on creating fun that we don't recognize any other values. It's no wonder our products are so vapid and shallow."

Adams also questioned whether current games, which force the player to pursue a rigidly defined victory, allow for the interpretative qualities common to true art.

"I'm not entirely convinced you can have an art appreciation experience while pursuing a goal," he said.

Can any current games stake a claim to art? Adams held up "Tetris" as a creatively open-ended game that shows real aesthetic values.

Influential futurist and MIT computer sciences professor Marvin Minsky noted the role games have played in pushing technology forward. Many of the early advances in artificial intelligence, he said, were prompted by experiences with a 1950s software program for playing checkers against a computer.

"We do a few things to survive," he said. "We need someone to dig coal; we need a source of food. But everything else important that people do is entertainment."

Gender inequality in gaming was the topic of another roundtable discussion. Panelists said typical game patterns, in which the player solves (or blows away) a series of obstacles don't really do it for women.

"There's an inherent difference in the way men and women play," said moderator Melissa Farmer, marketing manager at game publisher Infogrames. "When you confront a girl with an obstacle, they want to analyze it and discuss it and try to work out a solution. Boys want to break it down as fast as they can. It's about skills, not kills, for girls."

Will Wright, creator of "SimCity" and "The Sims," said the gender gap in gaming applies not just to customers but developers. The bulk of the people making games are men, doing things that appeal to them. He attributed the cross-gender appeal of "The Sims" to having an almost equal mix of men and women working on the game.

"I don' think there's a magic game design formula to appeal to women," he said. "The only way it's going to turn around is when you get more women in game design."